People often forget that in learning hokku, one does not just learn how to write them, but also how to read them. The same principles that apply to writing apply also to reading, and both are important. If one does not know how to read a hokku, it will fail just as miserably as if it were the creation of a person who does not know how to write hokku.
One very significant characteristic of hokku is unity. That means, as I have said before, that a hokku is not just a random assemblage of things tossed together into a brief verse. For example, I could write
The dog barks;
A bouquet of dried flowers
In a window.
That would not be a hokku, in spite of the fact that it is in three lines, and despite correctly having a longer and a shorter part separated by punctuation (which also ends the verse). So merely having the correct “format” does not make a hokku, just a poor imitation.
What is wrong with it? It has no unity. There is a barking dog, and a bouquet of dried flowers in a window, but there is no relationship felt between them. They are just things and events thrown together. It does not matter that in the “real world” these may have actually been experienced. The fact remains that for the reader, there is no perceived relationship, no sense of unity, and that is why it fails as hokku.
This is something that people new to hokku, particularly those coming to it from other kinds of brief verse, tend not to grasp until it is pointed out to them.
Issa wrote a hokku that is a very basic lesson in unity, because we can easily see in it how the parts of the verse must relate to one another for it to make sense. If the reader does not make that connection, there is no hokku. That means the reader must trust that there is a connection, and the writer must know the aesthetics and principles of hokku well enough to make sure that the connection is there. If either writer or reader fails in this, the hokku will also be a failure.
So here is Issa’s verse — only eight words in English. It is a summer hokku (remember that a hokku should always be marked with the season):
And one fly;
The big room.
Knowing that in hokku things relate to one another, a reader familiar with this principle will intuit that the man and the fly are IN the big room. It does not need to be stated in words. And further, from his or her own experience, the reader will immediately feel the bothersomeness of that tiny fly to the one man in the very large room. We do not have to be told that the fly will keep lighting on the man’s forehead, or on his book, and the man will swat at it with his hand and it will fly away, only to be back again to trouble him repeatedly. And all of this is only made more bothersome by the fact that it is a summer day. One can even hear the buzzing of the fly in the warm silence of the room.
In addition to unity — the relationship between room, man, and fly — this hokku demonstrates rather obvious humor, which we feel in the “big” man in the much bigger room at the mercy of a tiny fly.
That does not mean all hokku should have this kind of psychological humor that is really very close to senryu. That is not the lesson of this verse for us. What we should learn from it is that everything in a hokku should be felt to relate to everything else in a meaningful way, so that we see the underlying unity and harmony of life that we so often do not notice in the apparent disparateness of things.
Today, for example, it is pouring rain where I am, even though it is the middle of June. I am staying indoors, quietly writing this posting. My remaining indoors relates to the rain, because when it rains, particularly when it pours, people tend to react by staying under shelter. And the rain seems to encourage quiet in us rather than action, which is precisely why I am sitting here tapping these keys to tell you about it instead of occupying myself with something else.
So please keep in mind, as you begin to learn hokku, that things should relate to one another in a verse, and that when a verse is read, the reader should be able to see that relationship. Otherwise, if the writer does not understand this principle of hokku, there will be nothing for the reader to “put together,” no threads uniting everything in the verse. That leaves us with just a three-line brief verse, a random assemblage of unrelated things. Whatever one may call it, it cannot be legitimately called a hokku.