What would a Japanese of Bashō‘s time think of modern hokku?
First, he or she would no doubt be surprised to find it written in a language other than Japanese.
Second, he would probably also be surprised to find us writing hokku only as independent verses, and not, at times, as the first verse in a linked verse sequence. In his day it could have been both.
Third, in indicating the season of a verse, he would note the change from the complicated and unwieldy old “season word” system to a simple seasonal heading preceding the verse.
Fourth, he might notice the significant absence of the allegorical in hokku, because old hokku, particularly when used as the first of a series of linked verses, were often used in an allegorical way to greet the host or hostess of a gathering for writing “communal” linked verse, or for other purposes. And with this, he might notice the significant prevalence of objectivity in modern hokku rather than subjectivity, which was more prevalent in old hokku — particularly those written by women in those days.
Fifth, he might notice that modern hokku are written in three lines rather than one, though that would not be entirely new to him, because old hokku were often separated into two or three lines when they were written on fans, etc.
Sixth, he would probably note the paucity of allusions in modern hokku, given that old hokku frequently alluded to lines from other literature, from historical or mythological events, and so on.
An additional difference is that modern hokku places a stronger emphasis on hokku written from actual experience of an event, rather than from composition “out of one’s head,” which was very common in old hokku when it was taught largely as the beginning part of the more complicated and communal practice of haikai no renga — the composing lined verses.
Modern hokku does differ in these respects from old Japanese hokku, but there is a good reason for all the differences.
The writing of modern “independent” hokku means that it is no longer a kind of poetry game or social composition event, as it was when practiced as linked verse. The “season word” system was done away with because it made hokku too complex, and violates the principle of simplicity. The allegorical or “double meaning” often found in old hokku was also dropped, because it lessens the focus by creating a second object in the mind. Three lines are used because they provide an excellent format for hokku in English, making it not only visually pleasant but practical. Allusion in hokku has generally been dropped because it requires not only a thorough literary knowledge but also complicates hokku, taking us away from its simplicity.
Writing from actual experience keeps us closer to Nature and its changes, and requires us to pay attention to things we might not ordinarily notice.
All of these differences return us to the essence of good hokku, which is to simply convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing context of the seasons. Consequently needless complexities that obscure that simplicity and that clear purpose have been dropped, giving us modern hokku in English.
In old hokku, we might find such subjective verses as this one by Chiyo-ni (a female writer in the 1700s):
Plum blossom fragrance;
Where has she blown to —
The Snow Woman?
A “Snow Woman,” (Yuki Onna), in Japanese folklore, was a kind of uncanny spirit who appeared when it was snowing — somewhat like the “Snow Queen” in the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson. If you have seen the Japanese movie Kwaidan, it has a segment with a Snow Woman. As we can see, Chiyo-ni’s verse takes us away from reality and into the imagination. Chiyo-ni’s verse was intended to show us the transition from winter to spring. Now that the plum is blossoming, she asks, what happened to the Snow Woman/the cold of winter?
But by contrast, this hokku by Chiyo-ni would be acceptable as a very good modern hokku:
Picked up is moving;
That is also a spring verse, but here there is no imagination to distract from reality. When the tide goes out and one picks up tiny shells, they begin to move, because the creatures in them are still alive. This hokku gives us a strong impression of the experience, re-creating it within us. We can see and feel the things moving in our hand. It also conveys the sense of the growing active energy of spring.
By our standards, the first verse about the Snow Woman would not be acceptable as hokku, though it would fit the very loose and indistinct boundaries of modern haiku. The second verse, however, makes a quite good example for teaching modern hokku. Hokku should take us out of intellection and imagination and into Nature — to the experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. That is hokku at its best.