DEFINING HOKKU

Many people first discover hokku after having been involved with other forms of short verse — even short verse that was inspired by and in an historical sense “developed out of” hokku and may even superficially look like hokku — but has taken a different path and a different name — the modern “haiku.”

If you look for a clear definition of the verse form that was inspired by the hokku and that gained popularity in the West from about the middle of the 20th century onward — the “haiku” — you will find that people generally say it can be “described but not defined,” meaning there is no clear definition for it.  It is whatever a writer says it is.

From that alone, we can see that modern short verses that may look like hokku and were originally inspired by hokku are nonetheless not hokku, because hokku can be clearly defined.

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse expressing an experience of Nature and/or humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.  It consists of two parts, a longer of two lines and a shorter of one line, with either beginning the verse.  The two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation, and the first letter of each line is capitalized, and the whole ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.  It is characterized by brevity, simplicity, concreteness (dealing with things rather than our ideas about things) and objectivity.  It focuses on sensory experience (seeing, hearing touching, tasting, smelling) rather than abstract thought, and when dealing with states of mind such as sadness or joy, it presents them objectively.  It avoids violent topics as well as other topics that disturb the mind, such as sex and romance.  It deliberately de-emphasizes the ego, and when mentioning the writer, it does so objectively, as one would deal with a bird or a stone.

So that is hokku.  We could go deeper into the mental attitude behind hokku, but that is enough of a definition for now.

The aesthetics of hokku are so very different from those of Western poetry that it is misleading to even think of hokku as poetry, because that only causes confusion.  That is why the best way to regard hokku is to see it like this:

A hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.

If you stand on a rocky shore and look out at the undulating waves of the sea, what you see is not poetry; what you see is a thing-event.  An event is something happening, and of course without a “thing” nothing happens.  So a bird flying is a thing-event; a bud on a branch is a thing-event.  The sun rising is a thing-event.  An old man sneezing is a thing-event.  A child burping is a thing-event.  Similarly, a hokku is not a poem; it is a thing-event put into simple words.

Buson wrote:

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Where is the poetry in that?  It is just a statement of what is happening, set in the context of a season.

Nonetheless, when we look at the sea there is poetry in the experience, and R. H. Blyth tells us clearly and correctly why:

There is a poetry independent of rhyme and rhythm, of onomatopoeia and poetic brevity, of cadence and parallelism, of all form whatsoever.  It is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions, and lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  It is the seeing we do when a white butterfly flutters by us down the valley, never to return.” (Eastern Culture)

If we do not consider a hokku poetry, what then is it?  It is simply a thing-event — an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.

Blyth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”

In hokku that means the poetry is not something we add to a thing-event as one adds condiments to spice up a soup.  It is not a dash of metaphor, a thick slice of iambic pentameter, a pinch of alliteration.  Instead,  with hokku poetry is something awakened in the reader by certain thing-events, and when we experience such a thing-event, we “automatically” perceive the poetry in it.  That is the poetical experience of hokku, and that is the entire point of hokku.  Without this poetry in a thing-event, hokku would not, could not exist.  So the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.

That is why when Buson saw the sea of spring — when we read Buson’s verse that gives us only the sea of spring with nothing added — we experience that thing-event and poetry is born in us.  Yes, the poetry is in the event, but only when it is perceived by the person able to recognize and experience the poetry in it, in which case the spring sea is born in that person, the thing-event takes place, and the poetry is felt.

We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader.  Without the reader the verse is just words on page.  But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event is experienced by the reader — and that experience “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.”  So again, the poetry is not the hokku, but it is rather the experience the hokku evokes in the mind of the reader.

If you find that confusing, just remember this and you will grasp the essence of the matter:

Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader.  That is why, when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

That is why Blyth tells us that we must not obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words and thoughts — with attempts to make them into poetry.  “Things must speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear what the poets have said about them.”

That is why in hokku there are no poets. The writer is simply the mirror that reflects Nature. It is the job of the writer to keep the mirror wiped clean of the dust of thought and self-will. The writer of hokku does not block the speaking of Nature with his or her own voice. Instead, one simply lets Nature speak through the writer.  When we write a clear, objective hokku about the ripples in a stream, the universe as ripples in a stream is able to speak through the universe as writer.  The writer disappears, and only the ripples are heard.

This is not some kind of verbal hocus-pocus or spacey, New-Age nonsense. It is exactly how hokku works.

When we read the words of Mokudō,

The spring wind;
A sound of water running
Through the barley.

– where is the writer? Where is the reader? Both have disappeared. There is only the spring wind, only the sound of water running through the barley field. The truth is revealed for all to see.  Hokku simply presents us with the thing-event “devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration…”

Because in hokku the writer gets out of the way to let Nature speak, we can say clearly and plainly, as did R. H. Blyth, what hokku is.  It is not a poem, it is not literature. Instead, “it is a way of returning to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature….”  It restores our sense that humans are not apart from, but are just a part of Nature — something that is needed now more than ever, with the world teetering on the edge of a serious climatic and environmental crisis.

Those of you who may wish to learn to write hokku, rather than just read about it, will find practical lessons and methods for doing so on my Hokku Inn site:
https://hokkuinn.wordpress.com/

David

2 thoughts on “DEFINING HOKKU

  1. Hokku Novice

    Hey David,

    Is there a difference in line length (number of words/syllables per line) between haiku and hokku, or is it understood to be the same?

    Ed

    REPLY:

    In English, there is no fixed number of syllables or words per line in hokku, only a necessity to keep a verse brief. When it is spoken without pause, an entire hokku should take no longer to say than one normal breath or less. In actual practice, the number of words in a finished hokku tends commonly to vary from seven to eleven simple words.

    By contrast, haiku as it was traditionally practiced in the mid 20th century — and still is today by many — has a fixed syllabic length of 5/7/5 syllables — 17 in all. That continues to be the standard when haiku is taught in elementary schools (with some variation). However, many contemporary haiku writers no longer follow a fixed syllable length or a standard length in words. In modern haiku, a haiku is whatever a writer says it is, so a haiku may be only one word, or it may be far longer than a hokku, depending on the whim of the writer. One haiku site sets length at “as short as it can be and as long as it needs to be.” In general practice, however, both hokku and haiku tend to be brief and similar in length.

    The 5/7/5 syllable length traditional in English-language haiku came about as a result of a misunderstanding. Japanese hokku originally had a standard length of 5/7/5 or a total of 17 phonetic units — but that is not precisely the same as English syllables. In Japanese, for example, the word “Zen” is two phonetic units (ze + n), while in English it is only one syllable.

    David

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