From time to time I like to explain, so there will be no confusion, just what it is that I teach as hokku.
It is not precisely the same as old Japanese hokku. It could not be, given the difference in language. Most people would, in fact, feel much of old hokku — particularly when it was only the first verse in a haikai sequence of verses, though the most important — to be very alien.
Old hokku was a mixture of genuine experience, imagined experience, and borrowings of lines and phrases not only from Chinese poetry but also from Japanese waka poetry and even from other hokku. In addition, it was often very difficult to understand without recognizing not only those borrowings but also other Japanese and Chinese literary, historical, and geographical allusions.
People often make the mistake of thinking that hokku became independent of linked verse only through the efforts of Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century. That is not true. Hokku were already found independent of linked verse in the time of Bashō (17th century). And, as Makoto Ueda writes, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the writing of hokku as independent verses was just as popular or even more popular than the writing of hokku in linked verse. Though I have enjoyed hokku for many decades, I have never cared for its use in linked verse, though I would certainly not go as far as Shiki and say it should not be so used. It is just not something I like or teach. I prefer following the early “independent” course of hokku when used alone, or in travel journals or other writings.
Bashō wrote hokku, but much of his time was spent in the teaching of the active communal composition of linked verse — haikai linked verse. A good deal of time was devoted in old Japan to teaching all the complexities of linked verse to amateurs, and it was from this teaching that those like Bashō actually made a living. Can you imagine anyone making a living by doing that in America today?
If, then, what I teach as hokku today is not in all respects the same as old Japanese hokku, what exactly is it?
As already mentioned, I do not put any emphasis on linked verse, which most Westerners (myself included) find unutterably boring. Nor do I teach a hokku heavily laced with literary, geographic, and historical allusions of one kind or another. I have always favored dispensing with such needless complexities.
What I teach as hokku is the best of old hokku distilled to its essence, which is sensory experience involving Nature and the place of humans within Nature, expressed in the context of the changing seasons. It is hokku simplified and concentrated, though simplification in this case does not mean in any way a lessening. In fact by eliminating the extraneous matter of old hokku, I believe we reach its deepest possibilities by keeping its most important qualities and leaving aside unnecessary baggage.
To do that, one must be selective, looking for that in old hokku which transcends culture and is universal. Doing so is what allows us to legitimately speak of writing hokku in English and other languages. We take what is universal in hokku out of a limited cultural context and make it available to everyone.
We do not have to invent a “new” hokku to do that, as modern haiku constantly thinks it must be doing to keep up to date. Instead we only have to look to the best examples of old hokku, and they show us precisely what the universal and most significant characteristics of old hokku are. Then we need only apply those to writing in English.
The result of this is that hokku as I teach it is so close to old hokku that I can still teach directly from old verses translated into English, precisely because those “model” hokku are expressions of the best that the old hokku tradition produced, and they provide the solid foundation on which modern hokku is based.
To me, the best of old hokku are those which express the spiritual tradition that gave rise to it. That spiritual tradition involves the ancient knowledge that humans are a part of, not apart from, Nature. And it involves the notion that the deepest experiences are those which transcend the individual self and its desires. To express this, we look to Nature and its transformations, which show us the interplay of Yin and Yang, the two opposing yet harmonious elements in the universe. And to transmit an experience of Nature, we must calm the mirror of the mind so that it becomes a clear mirror reflecting Nature, unobscured by the wants and whims of the ego. That is why I always say that to write hokku, one must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.
This is significantly different than what we are accustomed to in Western literature, but in Japan it was the spirit behind all the contemplative arts, so that if one understands one of them, one understands all. We must not think of hokku, however, as something “Japanese” adopted into the English language. Instead we must look at it as a verse form with universal aspects that can put on the garb of any culture and any time, as long as it remains true to its fundamental goals and principals.
Hokku that does not remain faithful to these fundamental goals and principles is hokku no longer. We have seen what it then becomes in modern haiku, which became greatly distorted only a short time after it separated from hokku near the beginning of the 20th century. Much of modern haiku is an ever-fragmenting ersatz version of the old hokku, having sometimes its form but almost never its substance — a shell filled with Western notions about poets and poetry. It is distant even from the “haiku” of Shiki, which was for all practical purposes mostly just hokku under a different name. It has generally abandoned the original connection with Nature and the seasons, and in doing so it has lost both the spirituality and the depth of old hokku, and in doing so it has become completely rootless and adrift, pushed about by every wind of individual whim and fancy.
To avoid that happening to hokku, one has to understand its underlying principles — not only how to write hokku, but also why it is written in a particular way. This, of course, demands more of both writer and reader than modern haiku, which no longer has definite standards of form and content.
Hokku today, as I always say, should be thoroughly American if written in America, thoroughly Welsh if written in Wales, thoroughly Swedish if written in Sweden, thoroughly Spanish if written in Spain, thoroughly South African if written in Zulu or Afrikaans, and so on until every country and region of the world has been included. Hokku should never be seen as a cultural outpost of Japan, regulated by some sort of Japanese Vatican of supposed modern experts. Instead it should always grow as a native plant in whatever country it is found. But still it expresses the best of old hokku in modern-day languages, not as an artifact kept in a museum, but as a living, breathing thing, always nourished by Nature and its changes, from which hokku cannot be separated and still be considered hokku.
I call the kind of hokku I teach contemplative hokku, because it is rooted in the meditative traditions that were the spiritual basis underlying the cultural development of early hokku. These of course, at their essence, are also universal. So modern hokku retains the spiritual basis that gave rise to old hokku. It has not severed its roots, as has modern haiku, and that makes it worthwhile as far more than simply a pastime or a hobby.
Hokku can be part of a spiritual path if practiced correctly. Nonetheless, hokku by itself never enlightened anyone. That is why I always recommend that those wishing to write hokku take up a meditative practice that will enable them to gradually lessen the hold of the ego. Only that will prove of lasting benefit, and without it hokku is of no more spiritual value than collecting stamps or doing crossword puzzles. In fact without that spiritual basis, hokku can actually be harmful if it contributes to the strengthening of the ego and of materialism instead of their lessening.
We live in a world that more than ever needs to recognize and restore the connection between human life and Nature. Our ignorance of, and disrespect for that vital union has led to massive deforestation, great pollution of the atmosphere and ocean, and changes that threaten not only a multitude of species of life but even human life on this planet. The practice of hokku is only one step toward changing that, but as the old Daoist saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins where you are standing.”