Here I have strung together some information on season in hokku, as well as a bit on the role of Yin and Yang:
The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.
First, the basics.
The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.
Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.
It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.
Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it. True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way. Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.
Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an autumn hokku:
The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.
First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves. Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following. We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before. And then there is the age of the dog. We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog. We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace. And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root. The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past. Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku. And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified. That makes for good hokku.
So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another. Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.
We have seen Bashō’s hokku,
On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.
Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku. So that is the seasonal context. Autumn is the decline of Yang into Yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity. It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night. And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow. And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (Yang) to inactivity (Yin). And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn. So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.
We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku. That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W. The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku. Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.
What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening. Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening. But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn. And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.
There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast – of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream. Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination.
For now, keep in mind these essentials:
Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.
Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.
Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.
Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.
It is very easy to superficially notice, or to unthinkingly gloss over, the critical importance of season in hokku. It is not going too far to say that hokku is the verse of the seasons — that the REAL subject of every verse is the season in which it is written.
Seen from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the writers of old hokku placed so much emphasis on the importance of season that subjects were classified by season, and these classifications — specific words indicating the season and incorporated into the hokku — were compiled into dictionaries.
The great advantage of such a system is that one had only to mention the word in the verse and the season was evoked. For example the word “haze” in a hokku let the reader know immediately that it was a “spring” hokku. That was a great benefit. But there was also a negative side. The classification of season words became artificial to some extent, and the numbers of them so great that learning how to properly use them took years.
That is why in hokku as I teach it, we still emphasize season, but no longer keep lists or classifications of season words. Instead we categorize every hokku by season. Each verse — when written — is marked with the season. And when shared that seasonal classification is passed on with the verse.
There is a very serious potential danger in this system too, however, if it is understood only superficially and not deeply.
The danger is precisely this: Some writers think that merely categorizing a verse by season makes it a verse OF that season — that if I write, for example, about getting a drink of water as autumn begins, that automatically makes it an autumn verse.
This is a very serious error, and it is related to the equally serious error of thinking that hokku are just assemblages of random things.
The whole point of the use of season words in old hokku — and the point of seasonal classification in modern hokku — is to express the essential nature of the season through events in which that essential nature manifests.
This is not really as difficult as it first sounds. We all know that pumpkins, scarecrows, and falling leaves are manifestations of autumn. Even a child recognizes them as autumn subjects. BUT THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.
Did you ever wonder why I talk so much about such things as Yin and Yang? It is because they are direct pointers not only to what is happening in a season, but to what manifests a season — meaning what evokes its essential nature.
NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON. And so of course, things that do not manifest that essential nature are not really appropriate for hokku of that season, though they may be appropriate for many other kinds of verse.
If you want to write hokku, then, you must be aware of the character of each season, of its inherent qualities. One can begin such learning — which is really a becoming aware — very simply, and then gradually build up a deeper understanding of these things. Anyone knows intuitively, for example, that spring is what is young and fresh and new, summer is maturity, autumn is declining and withering, and winter is the prevalence of darkness, cold and stillness.
In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin. That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature. In the day, morning is growing Yang (declining Yin); noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang (growing Yin), and the middle of night is maximum Yin. In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.
In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it begins to change into its opposite, and gives way to growing Yin.
Summer, then, is extremely Yang. That is manifested in its heat. Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness. Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows. Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows. The same applies to moisture, which is Yin. In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.
Consider all of this carefully. We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology. But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.
The important things to remember now are that Hokku, the verse of Nature, is also the verse of the seasons; and further, that there are things appropriate to each season because they manifest its character. And those things that do not show us the character of the season are not appropriate for hokku written in that season.
I hope this comes as a revelation to many of you.
Knowing this explains why specific season words were so critical to old hokku. They were an attempt to express a season by listing things in which the character of the season was manifested. Though it had its flaws, we could say that the system of specific season words is the “easy” way; what is theoretically appropriate to a season is already decided and codified in a dictionary of season words.
But in modern hokku more is demanded of us. We are able to avoid the artificiality and complexity to which the use of specific season words eventually led because we replace them with simple seasonal classification of each verse. But as a consequence, we must become far more personally aware of what is inherently, aesthetically appropriate to each season. Otherwise no matter how we classify a verse by season, if we do not understand the inherent nature and character of a season and the resulting aesthetics appropriate to it, we will fail miserably at hokku.
What this means is that we must become more like our ancestors, who were keenly aware of each season, its weather, its changes, characteristics, foods and cultural associations. That is why I have been posting recently about the traditional calendar and the flexible “hokku” calendar.
In previous postings I have talked about how hokku intimately relates to Nature and the seasons, and I have said that the key to hokku is understanding that it expresses the seasons in its subject matter. Merely setting a hokku in a given season is not enough; the hokku must express that season in one of its many manifestations, whether it is reddening leaves, falling leaves, a garden withering, pumpkins, Halloween, and so on.
It should be obvious, then, that the more one is in touch with Nature, the more one will be able to express the nature of a season through understanding natural changes in the world and life around us, as well as in ourselves. One can hardly find a better example of such keeping in touch with Nature than the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, who meticulously noted seasonal changes in the area of Concord, Massachussetts, in the 19th century. We can hardly write with much versatility about autumn if we do not know what Nature is doing in autumn.
Of course there are many good hokku to be written from obvious autumn subjects, but a wider range comes only from learning the changes of Nature from season to season in the place where we live . Autumn in New England will be somewhat different from autumn in the Cascade foothills of the Northwest, and autumn in the Salinas Valley will be different from both. And of course we can say the same of autumn in the Basel region of Switzerland, autumn in the east German region of Bautzen, autumn in the Netherlands, or autumn in Norway or Finland or the south of France, the West Country of England, or the Rhondda Valley of Wales.
Given the huge range of local variation in life and climate, it has simply become impractical to write hokku based on the old season word system, even overlooking its other faults. That is why the “natural” system is preferable in our time. The natural system is the “Thoreau” system — becoming familiar with Nature in its seasonal changes and manifestations in the plant and animal world around us, not just in the category of “human affairs” or the obvious aspects of autumn.
In hokku old and new, there are two ways of relating to the seasons. One is fixed and somewhat artificial (old hokku), the other natural (new hokku).
The “fixed” way is the compiling of season words and season dictionaries, and spending years learning them and how to apply them. But even then, the result will generally be overlooked or unperceived by those who do not write hokku. So the use of fixed season words is rather like an esoteric language that can in many cases be understood only by initiates. This was the system that gradually developed and became more complex and artificial in old hokku. It has its benefits, but it also presents writer and reader with major difficulties.
That is why in modern hokku, the old system of season words has been dropped. It was, after all, only a means of linking hokku to the seasons, and when another and more convenient means is used, it is no longer necessary. In modern hokku that new method is marking each verse with the season in which it is written.
The important thing — and of course the fundamental characteristic of hokku — is its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons. All hokku then, ideally, reflect an event happening in the context of a season. But that is only the first stage of learning hokku, and without the next step, it is incomplete. To take us to the next stage — to genuine hokku rather than just some kind of haiku or other brief verse — we must write verse not only of an event happening in the context of a season, but also that event must reflect or express the nature of the season.
As I said in an earlier posting, this is truly the key to hokku — the realization that it expresses the nature of the season in which it is written.
Some topics are self-evident. In spring we may write about the return of wild geese, and in the fall — in autumn — we write about the departing wild geese, as well as other birds such as ducks and swans whose migratory patterns are most obvious to us in those seasons. That does not mean, of course, that we cannot write about geese, ducks, or swans in summer, but when we do so, it must be done in a way that reflects the nature of the summer, just as lines of wild geese crossing the sky as they fly southward reflect the nature of autumn.
Those learning hokku would do well to keep in mind the old categories in which hokku were placed:
The Season – the season itself, in settings such as “Autumn begins.”
The Sky and Elements – for example “The October sky,” or “The autumn wind.”
Gods and Buddhas – Religious figures or activities that express the season in one way or another.
Fields and Mountains – withering fields, autumn mountains, etc.
Human Affairs — all the things people do that are characteristic of autumn, such as a change to heavier clothing, or a child returning to school. Included are such things as scarecrows that we think of particularly in autumn. And of course Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Birds and Beasts – such things as wild geese leaving, and animals beginning hibernation, etc. And do not forget the “creepy-crawlies,” — insects, etc.
Trees and Flowers – Red leaves, falling leaves, blooming chrysanthemums, withering flowers in the garden and other such things.
Keep in mind these categories, and they will help you greatly in selecting and in eliminating subjects for hokku.
It is important to remember that just placing a verse in a seasonal context by marking it as spring, summer, autumn or winter does not quite achieve hokku. To take that last step, one must not only put the verse in the context of the season, but one must also express the season through the elements used in the verse and their interaction. Those elements must work in harmony to present a unified verse in which some aspect of the season is perceived in a way that is felt to be significant.