A reader has asked me to clarify a few points in this list (borrowed from R. H. Blyth) of the characteristics of hokku. Though he asked about only three, perhaps it might be helpful to give some explanation of all, for those readers just beginning to learn about hokku:
1. Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).
Comment: Hokku has a relatively fixed form. In English it consists of three lines, each line with an initial capital letter, and the whole fully punctuated. It is separated into two parts (divided by appropriate punctuation), a longer part and a shorter part. Further, it is set in a particular season. But beyond this, hokku limits itself to subjects that do not trouble or disturb the mind, which is why it avoids topics such as war, violence, sex, and romance. These limits are willingly accepted by those who practice it, realizing that hokku (unlike modern haiku) is not whatever anyone wants it to be. It has a definite purpose, and to achieve that, the limitations of hokku are seen as virtues rather than as undesirable boundaries.
2. Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).
Comment: Hokku lays primary importance on experiences of the senses — taste, touch, hearing, smelling, seeing. It avoids abandoning this concreteness for abstract “thinking,” for adding the comments and ornaments that are common to much of Western poetry. In short, hokku are about experiencing, not thinking about an experience or analyzing it.
3. Unsentimental love of Nature.
Comment: Hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans in and as a part of Nature. Nature is not treated unrealistically, nor is it used as a symbol or metaphor for something else. The writer is always aware that Nature is a process of change — of constant impermanence –and that nothing can be permanently grasped or possessed.
4. Lack of elegance.
Comment: Hokku — unlike the old waka poetry of Japan — does not deal merely with subjects thought to be “high” and poetic; instead it shows us the poetry in ordinary things. An excellent yet paradoxical example of this is Onitsura’s verse:
In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Here we have a simple flower blooming in a broken crock. There is nothing “elegant” about the subject matter, in fact it is filled with a sense of poverty. And though there is an elegance of simplicity in the way the subject is expressed, hokku avoids any materialistic elegance of status, of elevating “high” subjects above “low.”
5. Appreciation of imperfection.
Comment: We have just seen an example of that in Onitsura’s verse. The broken crock is obviously imperfect. Imperfection is a characteristic of existence, and hokku is realistic. It makes a virtue of such imperfections, seeing them as manifestations of the impermanence found throughout all Nature.
6. Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).
Comment: Those who have been reading here for some time know that hokku takes time to learn. There are many helpful techniques and there are all the basic principles and underlying aesthetics. And yet when the hokku is written, none of this should show. The hokku should appear just as spontaneous and natural as a ripe pear falling from the branch, otherwise we are too aware of the writer and are distracted from the experience that hokku should convey.
7. ”Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).
Comment: Poverty is very important in hokku and it means many things. Essentially it is an appreciation of the simple things in life, the opposite of materialism. In writing it means that we choose ordinary subjects, but present them seen in a new way. It also means that in writing we limit ourselves to a certain amount of space, and to simple and ordinary words. And it means that in hokku we are limited in how much we can say, and, as we have seen, there are limits too on the subject matter. Hokku thus expresses the sense of the words “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” because it means that in accepting voluntarily such limitations, we avoid materialism and ego, preferring spiritual development. This poverty is not seen as deprivation, but as the “empty cup” one must have so that something fresh and new may be poured into it.
8. Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.
Comment: For Westerners, there is a vagueness built into hokku. Because of its poverty, it never seems “finished” like a Western poem. It seems to be saying more than is in it, but what that something is, is never clearly stated. Instead it must be felt through having the experience of the hokku. A hokku only gives us a part of the wider whole. There is always something missing or hidden, because the poverty of hokku lets it only say and include just so much, and nothing beyond. It is like an old Chinese painting in which we see a landscape with considerable portions hidden by mist. Here is an example by Kyoroku:
It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.
We always see the bright fronts of morning glory blossoms, but the wind of autumn blows them in such a way that we see the pale whitish reverse side. We feel that there is a significance in this, but we cannot say what it is. We are just to experience the verse, feel the autumn wind, see the pale “backs” of the morning glories, and have that feeling of unexplained significance — a mixture of the poetic vague and the poetic definite. The verse is quite definite in what it shows us, but there is a vagueness underlying the whole that should not and cannot be clarified. We see the indefinite through the definite. There is more to a hokku than what it reveals, and yet what it shows us includes everything written and unwritten:
It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.
9. Human warmth.
Comment: Because humans are seen as a part of Nature, the writer of hokku cannot help but see them as included in its impermanence. Because of that, a compassion arises in the writer. We know that human life is brief, and filled with sorrows and joys that both are temporary. This compassion should not be “preachy” and obvious in hokku, but instead we should feel it behind a verse, like feeling the love of a mother pushing her child patiently in a swing — and it extends both to humans and to other creatures, as in this by Bunson:
The Harvest Moon;
In the dark places,
10. Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).
Comment: Modern haiku enthusiasts often complain about the limits of hokku, saying that one should be able to use it for “protest verses,” for showing the horrors of war, for all kinds of purposes that really have nothing to do with what hokku is all about. But hokku — particularly as I teach it — is a contemplative form of verse, meaning it should contribute to peace of mind rather than adding to the stress and worry of modern life. Hokku shows us the peace behind all of life’s problems, and that is why in writing, it helps to have a peaceful mind. Hokku is to take us beyond the continual emotional ups and downs and upheavals of life, to give us a little taste of what it means to live without an ego that is constantly fretting and desiring. So in hokku there are limits to what one can or should do (you can see how this relates to all that has been previously discussed here). The mind of the writer of hokku should be like a still pond in which the moon is reflected. It cannot be so if stirred by fears and emotions. And similarly, it should convey that sense of the peace underlying all the surface disturbances of life to the reader. That is why we call it a form of contemplative verse — contemplative in the sense of peaceful and meditative, silent and free of ego and open to the experience of Nature.
11. Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic sense).
Comment: Hokku is a very spiritual kind of verse in that to write it, one must get the ego out of the way — if only temporarily — so that Nature may speak. The writer should be like a clear mirror, free of the dust of emotions and desires. When that mirror is wiped clean, Nature can be clearly reflected in it. Unlike much Western poetry, in which the “poet” is considered important, in hokku the writer as “ego” is seen as an obstacle. So the hokku writer must put the ego aside, and simply convey an experience of Nature, neither adding his thoughts and comments to it nor ornamenting it. That of course includes omitting any obvious “preaching” about this or that, which is why when hokku talks about religion, it does so objectively. One of the worst things a beginning writer of hokku can do is to write a lot of verses filled with obvious references to Zen or Buddhism or Christianity or meditation — filling them up with concepts about religion instead of with concrete experiences. The spirituality of hokku lies in simply getting the ego out of the way. That does not mean one cannot include any mention of religion, but that mention should be natural and never forced or “sermonizing” or obvious. Issa, who sometimes failed in this, nonetheless gives us an example of a winter verse that is successful:
The Buddha in the fields;
An icicle hangs
From his nose.
Issa means, of course, an image of the Buddha.
12. Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).
Comment: Hokku has little use for glory. In hokku an orchid is not superior to a dandelion, nor is a beautiful young person preferable to one old and wrinkled. In fact, given the choice, hokku will usually choose the ordinary over the extraordinary, the plain over the conventionally pretty. In hokku a person with money has no greater value than a beggar in the streets. In fact the latter is more likely to appear in hokku than the former.
Further, hokku tends to prefer one thing to many — a single flower instead of a huge bouquet, one person alone instead of a crowd. That is why in old Japanese hokku, even though there is no indication of whether a subject is singular or plural, it is generally understood as singular. One thing is felt to have more significance than many things. Of course there are exceptions, but this is the general rule of thumb.
13. Unobtrusive good taste.
Comment: Good taste in hokku is seen in the absence of things that disturb the mind, as well as in the absence of catering to mass taste. It is seen in the poverty of hokku, as well as in its peaceful, contemplative atmosphere. And it is seen in the writer’s selection of elements included in a verse, which nonetheless must appear natural and spontaneous, even if it took the writer weeks to get it “just right.” Above all, good taste is seen in the selflessness of the writer, in his (or her) getting out of the way and allowing Nature to speak through a simple experience of the senses, set in the context of the seasons. All of the principles of hokku contribute toward this sense of unobtrusive good taste.
14. A still, small voice.
Comment: Hokku is not grand. It is not loud. It is not obtrusive. It appears almost too brief to be worthwhile. And yet it is in that very brevity and poverty and simplicity that we find the whole universe expressed in a falling leaf, in an ocean-smoothed pebble, in a crow on a withered branch at evening. Where much of Western poetry is “in your face” and advancing, hokku is quiet and retiring, like Wordsworth’s “violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye.” Because it does not try to be “all things to all men,” it is easily overlooked and undervalued, like a still, small voice. But those of you who recognize the biblical allusion in that will know that its smallness does not mean it is to be underestimated.
And yet, as Blyth correctly says, hokku “is not much in little, but enough in little.”
To those in modern haiku, the poverty of hokku and its voluntary willingness to limit itself was never enough. But that is the way of materialism, never to be satisfied, never to pause to realize that “enough” can be of greater value, ultimately, than “much.” Haiku is always looking for more, always wanting something new and different and more modern. Hokku, however, is quite satisfied with its own poverty and simplicity, making a virtue of the very things that for others are defects.
I hope these brief explanations help to give a better understanding of characteristics of hokku. It is important to realize that these are not applied in practice like ingredients in a recipe — a pinch of poverty, a teaspoon of human warmth — but are rather to be regarded as overall characteristics, part of the “atmosphere” and aesthetics of hokku that give it is distinctive nature.