Unlike most other kinds of verse, the hokku is linked with the season in which it is written. In fact one can say truthfully that whatever the obvious subject of a hokku, the real subject is the season in which it is written, and the “obvious” subject is just a manifestation of that season.
This reflects the spiritual roots of hokku and the view that things are not isolated phenomena, but are interconnected in innumerable ways. So interconnected, in fact, that an object or an event cannot exist in isolation, but only as a part of the Whole. So when Bashō writes of a frog jumping into an old pond, this is as a manifestation of and expression of the season of spring. If one does not know that, one does not know the entire verse. And most Westerners do not know that, because the seasonal connection is lost in transmission.
In old hokku, however, there was really only one way to know definitely the season of a given verse, and that was to have memorized a long and detailed glossary of recognized “season words,” called kigo 季語 (ki = season, go = ) in Japanese. If a given topic was not to be found in such accepted lists, it was simply not a subject for a verse. And to recognize the season of any verse and to write within the system required minimally six years or more of diligent study and familiarity before one could begin to use the “season word” technique with any facility.
Further, if one had not memorized the long list of acceptable words and their appropriate seasons, one had to refer to a glossary of season words in order to identify the season of any given hokku. Such a lengthy glossary was called a saijiki 歳時記 (sai = year, ji = time, ki = record), which we can simply call a “season book.” The season book listed the accepted kidai 季題 (ki = season, dai = subject) and as a subcategory for each season subject, the kigo, the season words, rather like a theme and variations.
All of this, of course, meant that the writing of old hokku was no simple matter. In fact passing time only brought increasing complexity to this system, and in addition, for all practical purposes, it limited the range of one’s subject matter to the accepted themes and season words. If one read a verse without recognizing the season inherent in it, one was obviously neither ready to read hokku nor to write it.
To those of us writing hokku today this seems like an unreasonable and intolerable burden, and though it had its advantages, they were far outweighed by its complexities. It is perhaps somewhat surprising, then, that Masaoka Shiki continued this season word system after his much-publicized re-packaging of the hokku as his “haiku.”
In modern haiku, which as readers here know I consider largely a degeneration and distortion of the hokku, there are two approaches to season. The great majority of writers simply ignore it, having divorced the modern haiku from season entirely. A lesser number attempt to re-create the bulky season word system in a Western context, and there are actually those who are busy compiling new “season books” in English, which given the geographical, climatic, and biological complexity of the United States alone, is a somewhat eccentric undertaking. And of course attempting to establish such a complex season word system in the West merely revives all of its associated problems, one of the most obvious of which is that no one outside the little group of writers using one of these new “season books” will have the slightest idea what the season of many of the poems written under it represent, because the general public will not be part of the tiny “in group” using a given “season word” book.
Modern hokku, by great contrast, solves the matter of seasonal association of a verse in a remarkably simple, practical, and straightforward manner. By doing so it maintains the virtues of the traditional seasonal connection of old hokku without the needless and rather pointless complexities and eccentricities of creating new “Western” season words and season books.
The modern hokku system is simply to mark each verse with the season in which it is written. A writer will categorize all of his or her hokku by these seasonal markings into the categories of “Spring,” “Summer,” “Autumn” (or “Fall”), and “Winter.” When a verse is shared or published, the seasonal categorization goes with it. It is such an eminently useful and practical and productive system that writers should immediately see its superiority to the old “season words” system.
As we have seen, the real subject of every hokku is its season. The four-word seasonal categorization system simply utilizes this fact. So if one were to use Bashō’s hokku as an example, it would appear like this when written:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.
And of course if it were to appear in an anthology, all “Spring” verses would appear under that initial heading, and the same procedure would follow with Summer, Autumn, and Winter categories.
Somewhat astonishingly, this reduces the thousands of season words necessary to reading and writing hokku with any comprehension under the old system to simply four — Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter — and these function simply as headings for a single verse or for an anthology of verses.
Thus in one fell swoop modern hokku demolishes and improves upon the season word system that caused so much needless complexity in old hokku and that continues to be pointlessly revived with its needless complexities in some segments of modern haiku. Yet in doing so it does not abandon the essence of the matter — it retains firmly and with great practicality the indissoluble link between hokku and the seasons. That has always been the practice in modern hokku in English: To preserve the essence of old hokku at its best, without being slavishly literal in its transmission. That is why modern hokku in English can be thoroughly American or British or Australian or Indian, etc., without abandoning the genuine essentials of hokku, and without any need for maintaining any of the culturally-limited baggage that potentially so hinders the verse form in its transmission from one culture to another and very different culture.