One of the most difficult things for the beginning student of hokku to grasp is the difference in what we might call “levels” of hokku. It is common for someone unfamiliar with the principles of hokku to read hundreds of old verses from the time of Bashō and Onitsura in the 17th century up to the time of Shiki and his “haiku” revolt near the turn of the last century, without ever having noticed the differences in “level.”
What do I mean by “level” in hokku? Put very simply, some verses, however pleasant they may be, are little more than illustrations, “pictures” in words. In others, however, one has the feeling that there is more going on in the verse than is stated in words. There is a feeling of hidden “depth.”
Hokku with “depth” were appreciated through most of the history of hokku. But near the end of the 19th century, with the “reforms” of Shiki, verses became more and more like “pictures,” without depth. Everything was on the surface, so we speak of such verses as “superficial,” even though they may still be pleasing.
Shiki was a great admirer of the earlier writer Buson, who was a painter as well as a composer of hokku. But even Buson came up with verses with “depth,” while those of Shiki himself tend to be superficial, to be little more than pleasant illustrations. I often compare hokku of this kind to those attractive Japanese woodblock prints one finds by Hasui and Yoshida. It does not mean they are bad, it just means that they lack depth.
Here, for example, is a “spring” verse by Shiki:
Holding an umbrella,
Looking at picture books in a shop.
You have to picture a man standing just inside one of those old-fashioned, Japanese open-fronted book shops, looking at the books laid out flat on tables as he holds the kind of paper-and-bamboo umbrella that used to be typical of that time and place. This verse is a “picture,” with not much more in it than that.
If we look at another spring verse of approximately the same late period, we find that even though it is written by someone else, in this case Otsuji, we still get a kind of illustration:
Seen between the trees —
A path to the sea.
It is pleasant and quiet and undemanding, and though we may think at first that it too is only an illustration, notice that we at least feel behind it the vastness and power of the (hidden) sea. So while it is still largely a “picture,” it is less superficial than the verse by Shiki.
Now we can turn to the person Shiki so admired — Buson — who lived in the 18th instead of the 19th-20th century:
Bags of seeds
The spring rain.
To the novice, that might seem to be little different from the other two verses, but really it is worlds apart. Like them, it is an event in spring, but in this case we sense the power inherent in the bags of seeds, and we know that the spring rain is going to affect them if they are left in it for long; they are going to begin to swell and sprout with abundant new life. So even without it being said, we feel a kind of hidden power in this verse, something “big” going on that is not even mentioned in the words of the verse. That unspoken part of a hokku, which is really all the better for being left unspoken, is what gives depth. In Buson’s verse we really feel the nature and character of spring, which we do not in the other two.
Of course not all hokku are quite that obvious. In general we can say, however, that older hokku tend to have more depth than verses written after Shiki’s propaganda urged writers to make “sketches from life.” And of course Shiki liked to call those “new” verses by a different name — “haiku,” even though they were still essentially hokku in form and often in content.
It is useful, then for the student of hokku to look through lots of old hokku, comparing them to see which have a sense of depth, and which are just “pictures” in words, with little beyond that. The key to determining depth is to look for something unspoken in the hokku, for something beyond what is actually written. If it is not there, the hokku — like the first example by Shiki, is superficial, no matter how pleasant it may be otherwise.