Shiki, who set the “haiku” off on its increasingly erratic course near the beginning of the 20th century, wrote a great many verses that are actually just hokku under a different name. They still have a focus on Nature and are set within a particular season. Some are good, some mediocre. But Shiki also wrote verses that can show us what to avoid in hokku.
The one I discuss today is actually rather atypical of Shiki’s style, which on the whole favored realism, even if at times unattractive and boring realism. But it is useful for showing the distinction between what hokku should not be and what hokku should be.
To make it brief, hokku should not be about fantasy or imagination. Even when verses are not based on a single actual experience, they should be based on past actual experiences of Nature and the place of humans within Nature.
This autumn verse by Shiki, however, is bare fantasy:
Shot by the scarecrow,
They fall into the sea.
To understand it, you must know that rice sparrows flock to the rice fields at harvest time to eat. Old Japanese scarecrows were often given fake bows and arrows in an attempt to frighten the birds away from the grain. But Shiki imagines that sparrows flying past the scarecrow and down over a bluff toward the sea have been shot by the scarecrow and are falling into the sea.
Well yes — you are right. It is a rather ridiculous verse, but again, it shows us what not to do in hokku.
Blyth gives a good example by Shôha of the hokku approach to a similar subject. Instead of indulging in flights of fantasy, the writer of hokku becomes like a reflecting mirror. Here is the verse in my translation:
In the morning wind,
Its bow has turned the other way;
The wind has shifted the position of the scarecrow on his support, so now he is aiming his bow in a different direction.
It is easy to see that the unrealistic imagination of the writer has not intruded in that hokku, and that is the approach we want in hokku, which should not be “fantasy” verse. It should take us into Nature, rather than into the mind and imagination of the writer.