I often express the view that the best hokku are those that keep the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak. That means hokku expressing an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, through one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.
There were, of course, many hokku that did not do this — even though written by the same author.
In the West, we are not accustomed to poetry that focuses on a sensory experience of Nature. It is, in fact, rather rare in English-language poetry. People encountering sensory hokku for the first time therefore often fail to recognize it for what it is, being accustomed to verses in which a poet expresses personal feelings about something, or expresses a point of view, or uses an event in Nature as a prelude to a poem discussing personal emotions or opinions. So in general, there is a lot of “I” in English poetry — a lot of the “self,” a lot of the poet expressing opinions and emotions, or else simply trying to be clever in words.
What all this means is that when a Westerner first encounters hokku, she or he will commonly view it in terms of Western poetry, which is, for the most part, quite different from sensory, objective hokku — so different, in fact, that even thinking of such hokku as poetry only contributes to the misperception. That is why I say that in trying to understand hokku — by which I generally mean sensory, objective hokku — it is best not to think of it as poetry, because we in the West are not accustomed to viewing objective sensory experience as poetry.
Westerners are generally far more at ease with verses such as this one, by Buson:
Asagiri ya e ni kaku yume no hit0-dori
Morning-mist picture in painted dream’s people-passing
Painted into a picture —
Dream people passing.
That is a verse completely unlike sensory, objective hokku. Instead, Buson (who was also an artist — a painter) has added his imagination to the verse. “Morning mist” is sensory enough, but the remaining two lines of the hokku are simply Buson’s imaginative interpretation of an event. The event itself consists of people passing through the morning mist. Buson, however, has used his imagination to make it into an analogy with painting: in his interpretation, the morning mist becomes the white paper, and those passing though it become misty watercolor people. It makes an interesting image, and for what it is, it is rather good poetry — but it does not at all do what sensory, objective hokku do, which is to take us away from the imagination and intellect into pure sensory experience.
Compare Buson’s verse with this, by Kikaku:
Tombō ya kurui-shizumaru mikka no tsuki
Dragonflies ya disorder-calms third-day moon
We have to gloss it a bit to get the meaning in English:
They cease their wild flight
As the crescent moon rises.
This is a simple statement of what is happening. The sensory experience is primarily visual. We see the erratic, wild flight of the dragonflies end with the rising of the crescent moon. There is no likening it to something else, no interpretation. It is just what it is, with no “thinking” or emotion added.
Now historically, both Buson’s “dream people” verse and Kikaku’s “dragonflies” verse are both technically hokku — but they are worlds apart, two completely different kinds of verse using the same form, but using different aesthetics to fill it.
When the Western haiku (as distinct from hokku) movement really got underway — which did not happen for all practical purposes until the 1960s — many of its enthusiasts automatically gravitated toward verses using “thinking” and imagination rather than sensory, objective verses. That is because the former are much more like conventional English-language poetry than the latter. As time passed, this trend only became magnified, which resulted in Western haiku moving ever farther away from its inspirational origins in Japanese hokku.
As long-time readers here know, I favor sensory, objective hokku. I do so because they are what was unique and innovative in old hokku. Their existence can be traced to the influence of Daoism and Zen Buddhism on Japanese aesthetics, so one could refer to such objective hokku as “Zen” hokku — but not because of any connection to Zen as a religious organization. It is their simplicity and purity that make the connection.
Because of these historical, aesthetic influences on sensory, objective hokku, I like to refer to this category of hokku as daoku — “Dao” or “Tao” verses: hokku that give us an objective experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature through one or more of the five senses, without the addition of the writer’s ego, imagination, intellection, or interpretation. Those verse are really — in my view — the best that Japanese hokku had to offer, a unique gift to the world. And those are the verses that make the best models for learning objective hokku — or daoku — today.
Daoku, by the way, borrows the word Dao — meaning the Way — the Way of the Universe, the Way of Nature — from the Chinese language, and the word ku — meaning “verse” — from Japanese.