The risk of writing a lot about the verse form hokku is that people may begin to think it is complicated. It does not help when I begin to explain how hokku differs from the recent offshoot known as haiku. All of that can be a bit confusing at first.
The difference, essentially, is this: modern haiku can be most any kind of verse of about three lines or less. If someone calls it a haiku, it is a haiku. It may be about any subject.
That notion is easy for people to grasp, and it is easy to write a verse that has no fixed standards. It is hard to make a mistake when there are really no lines to color outside of.
Hokku, by contrast, does have standards and expectations. First, the subject must be Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature. Second, the verse must be set in one of the four seasons — spring, summer, fall, and winter.
Then there are the things that should be left out of hokku: Romance, sex, violence, things in general that tend to trouble or disturb the mind.
There is also the format. A modern English-language hokku is written in three short lines, with the first letter of each line capitalized, and with appropriate internal and ending punctuation. And the hokku should consist of a longer (two lines) and a shorter (one line) part, separated by appropriate punctuation.
As for aesthetics, in general hokku rely on the concrete, on things and on sensory experience. It abandons “thinking” — intellectualizing — and emphasizes the perceiving of things through the senses.
Put that way, it does not really seem difficult, does it? All of that is easy for people to do.
The most difficult part of hokku is to be able to achieve its sense of spareness and simplicity and the oneness of humans and Nature and the changing seasons. Without that aesthetic, hokku does not really attain what it should. And the way to get that into your hokku is to get the writer out of the way, to take the emphasis off the self, and to put it into experiencing.
Let’s look at a hokku by the old Japanese writer Kikaku, translated into English:
A woman sitting alone,
Eight words. That is all it takes in English. It is in three lines, appropriately capitalized and punctuated. It takes place in a given season (summer). It has two parts: 1. Summer rain; 2. A woman sitting alone / Gazing outside, separated by appropriate punctuation (the semicolon after “rain”). It is a sensory experience, primarily sight, but also the implied sound and feel of summer rain. The words are simple and direct.
Though it is obvious that this is a summer hokku (given that it includes the word), I have added the season in parentheses at the beginning to show how modern hokku are shared. Not all hokku contain the season name, and it is important to know the season. In modern hokku that is done by putting it just before a single verse or a collection of verses of the same season.
So you see, writing hokku is really not difficult at all. It just takes time to learn the aesthetic approach appropriate to hokku, because people are so accustomed to poetry that either tells a story, or expresses what we think about things, or comments on things, or is all about me, me, me — all things that must be dropped to write good hokku. As you see, there is no “me” in Kikaku’s hokku to get between the reader and the experience. There is only the experience itself, and that is hokku.
We are not told why the woman is sitting there, or why she is staring so fixedly. That omission is important. The questions that poetry in general so often answers are left unanswered in hokku. Instead, we just want the experience, plain and unadorned by thought and comment. R. H. Blyth somewhere described that experience as the seed from which poetry grows. The poetry is the feeling the reader gets on reading an effective hokku. The hokku is the seed, and the poetry bursts from that seed in the mind of the reader when the hokku is read.
For those who like to see Japanese originals, here is Kikaku’s verse in transliteration:
Yūdachi ni hitori soto miru onna kana
Shower at alone outside looking woman kana