It is important to distinguish the essentials from the nonessentials in learning hokku. Many people easily get sidetracked, often never finding their way back.
There are, of course, ways to improve one’s conscious understanding of hokku. But it is the immediate effect of a verse that is what first caused that attraction — the effect of pure sensing — drops of rain falling on a pool, leaves drooping in heat, the odd, unmistakeable scent of a dandelion flower — these things are really the essence of hokku.
Some people of intellectual bent get drawn off into detailed study of old Japanese hokku — of allusions in Japanese or Chinese, of the intricacies of linking verses in the old practice, of the cultural significance of this or that object. But it is all just distraction. That is not what drew us to hokku, and the more we go off into intellection rather than sensing — experiencing — the more we will lose hokku.
The other side-route that draws off many people from hokku is the urge to change it — the very mistaken notion that because hokku is “old,” it must be altered to fit the times, to “express the individual.” First they alter this, then they change that, and quickly hokku disappears — vanishes. They have lost it because of their self-will, their urge to manipulate, the same urge that has done so much damage in the world.
Very, very few are those who just let hokku be — who accept it as it is in English, without trying to “Japanify” it, without trying to modernize it or intellectualize it or make it a vehicle of “self-” expression.
I hope at least some readers have noticed that I place no emphasis at all on esoteric Japanese terms in hokku. I just talk of hokku in plain English. When I am talking about indicating season, I don’t use a foreign term; when I am talking about the “cut” that separates the two parts of a hokku, I don’t use a foreign term. In fact the only term I really retain with any frequency is the word “hokku” itself, and that only because it is not only a distinctive name, but it is the old name for the kind of verse we write, and there seems no good reason to change that. And I use the Chinese terms Yin and Yang frequently — not because I want to sound exotic in any way, but just because we do not have native terms in English that cover all that those two terms cover — so I borrow them into English and make them English words because they are so useful.
Readers here will also note (I hope) that to explain hokku, I do not have to keep reaching into the distant Japanese past. There is no need at all for that. All we need is here, now, where we are, in this present moment — not in some foreign past.
I can give you all the essentials of writing hokku: How and where to cut a line, how to punctuate and capitalize, all the useful techniques such as internal reflection and harmony of difference, and harmony of similarity, of repeated subject, and all the rest. But it is all quite useless if the reader does not begin to live a life of hokku — a life allowing space for simply experiencing — simply being — without intellection — what we call “thinking” in hokku — and a life without the urge to remold hokku into some other form to fit this or that fad or whim.
I deliberately avoid trying to make hokku seem “academic,” which in my view is death to hokku; and I try to avoid making it seem in any way “Japanese,” which it should only be when written by Japanese. When written by an American it should be thoroughly American — or thoroughly Welsh when written by a resident of Wales, or quite Icelandic when written by an Icelander, and so on through the whole list of countries of the world.
If ever you find yourself getting distracted from “plain” hokku by intellectualism or the urge to change, just pause and remember what drew you to hokku in the beginning — Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons, manifesting through sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. All the rest is simply distraction from that pure essence.