THE BASICS OF HOKKU AESTHETICS

In a previous posting, you will recall, I said that one may have a verse in the outward form of a hokku, with everything in it correct, and still not have a hokku.  That is because to be a real hokku, a verse must have the content — the aesthetics — of hokku.

Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey Cypress) in Peb...

By aesthetics I mean the overall atmosphere of hokku.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that every aspect of hokku aesthetics must be seen or included in every hokku.  It is more subtle than that.

We can think of hokku aesthetics as the “taste” or the “fragrance” of a hokku.  It is the overall feeling one gets on reading a single hokku or a collection of hokku.  In some it may be fainter, in others stronger, but however faint or strong, it should always be there.

The most obvious characteristics of the overall hokku aesthetic are these:

1.  Poverty
2.  Simplicity
3.  Transience

Poverty applies both to the outward form and to the aesthetics of hokku content.  It means  a sense of spareness and ordinariness rather than a sense of luxury and the exotic.  Think of it like the simple — yet “plain” — beauty of Shaker furniture, or of the Walden of Thoreau, or of a Quaker meeting.  It means a sense of appreciation of the few things one has instead of a sense of unappreciated abundance.

We see poverty, for example, in Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming. 

The water plantain is a very ordinary and “plain”  plant, not showy at all, or expensive.   Here we see it not in a costly or elaborate pot, but in an ordinary clay pot or crock, and that crock is even broken.  So the poverty of this hokku is easy to see.

Poverty overlaps and relates to the next aesthetic characteristic of hokku — simplicity.  We also see simplicity in Onitsura’s verse.  The hokku form itself exhibits simplicity.  By simplicity we mean that a hokku does not have a flavor of complexity or elaborateness.  It is not hard to “get,” and it is very ordinary in its words, which are not fancy or unusual or requiring a special education to understand.  Hokku should not seem sophisticated.  We should not think of a city dweller going to plays and art galleries and parties; instead we should think of a farmer or of a hermit in the woods, or of a dweller in a simple house with a garden in a small town.

Added and related to that, hokku should have a sense of naturalness rather than artificiality or contrivance.  A hokku should seem natural and unforced in its writing.  It should not give the appearance of being the result of much thought and manipulation.

We see simplicity in this verse by Buson:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Do you notice that there is an underlying sense in that verse of “something happening”?  We see the rough cloth bags bulging with seeds getting soaked by the rain, but there is also a sense of latency; by that we mean a sense of something that is not said, but is still there nonetheless.  In this verse it is the underlying knowing that the soaked seeds are going to start swelling and sprouting in and through the holes in the weave of the cloth bag.  That gives this hokku the feeling of a kind of potential power that is not actually mentioned in the verse.  What is that power?  It is the sense of the growing Yang energy of spring.  I have talked about Yin and Yang in relation to hokku in other postings, and I will talk about them again in future postings, because they are something I often mention in my teaching of hokku. Keep in mind that we usually have that feeling of something left unsaid in hokku.

I mentioned naturalness in relation to simplicity.  Part of that is a sense of selflessness.  That means the writer should not “stand out” in a hokku.  Hokku is not about ego or self. That is why we minimalize the use of “I,” “me,” and “my.”  We usually avoid them unless they are necessary for clarity.

A third and very important characteristic of hokku aesthetics is a sense of transience.  Behind all of our practice of hokku there should be — sometimes fainter, sometimes stronger — the sense of evanescence, the sense that everything in this world is temporary, whether it be a blooming flower or a leaf on a tree or our lives.  There is nothing which we can hold on to always, because everything in life, everything in the universe, comes only to go.  It arises and then passes away.

That gives hokku another characteristic, which is something that is almost loneliness, but not quite, something with a feeling of solitude mixed into it.  It is almost sadness but again, not quite.  It is that feeling that arises in us when we realize that everything around us — our possessions, our friends, our surroundings — are transient and temporary.  That  too is very important in the aesthetics of hokku, the background feeling or flavor or subtle fragrance that is always behind our practice.  Imagine that you have been away for 30 years from the little town where you grew up; when you go back, you see that the small shops you remember are not there, certain buildings and houses are entirely gone, and you do not recognize the people in your old neighborhood.  Things are just different; it is no longer the place you remember.  That is the kind of feeling transience gives rise to.

Transience is obvious in Hyakuchi’s verse,

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
The haze. 

Associated with transience, please remember, is a sense of time passing.  That is why in hokku, things that are old or worn or weathered or broken are valued; they show the passage of time.  The transience of hokku is also why every hokku is set within a particular season, whether it is mentioned in the verse or used as its classification.  The seasons come and the seasons go, and what happens within the seasons is constantly changing.

There is of course much more to the aesthetics of hokku, but these characteristics are the basics, and every writer of hokku should know them.  Remember that they are not blatantly obvious in every hokku, but again are like the overall background taste or fragrance that permeates and pervades our practice of hokku.  If your verses have that subtle feeling, then that is what fills the correct form with what is really hokku and not some other kind of short verse.

Hokku leave us with the feeling that, even though they are very simple and ordinary, there is something significant in them that we cannot quite put our finger on, something deeper that is never said or explained in words.

Of course, of primary importance in hokku aesthetics is the overall subject matter of hokku, which we summarize as “Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.”

Many people read through these aesthetics, but they do not sink in; they do not really absorb them, and consequently fail in writing hokku.  So even though they seem and are very simple and ordinary, do not think they are unimportant.  To write hokku, you must realize what they mean in your life, and whether and to what extent your life reflects them.

David

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