WHAT IS “THINKING” IN HOKKU?

In writing daoku — objective hokku — we avoid having “thinking” in our verses. But what exactly is “thinking”?

It is using the mind instead of what is before you in an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. It is adding something that is not there in what you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Anything beyond that is “thinking.”

We may use modern haiku as an example.

When a beginner reads first objective hokku, then examples of modern haiku, there are strong differences that may be overlooked at first glance. The major difference is generally that writers of haiku feel they have to somehow insert “poetry” into a verse — otherwise they feel they are not poets, and writers of haiku like to think of themselves as poets.

That “poetry” often takes the form of added “thinking” by the writer — commentary or interpretation.  But in objective hokku — which we call daoku — there is no added commentary or interpretation.  And in hokku we do not call ourselves “poets” — we are just people who write hokku.

I don’t want to violate anyone’s copyright in using examples, so I will slightly alter one modern haiku I saw recently, while keeping the general content (the original was by Laryalee Fraser):

between heaven
and the turning earth
a falling leaf.

Now most people would not recognize the difference between that and an objective hokku.  Of course there are the obvious differences in format; hokku would capitalize the beginning of each line, and there would be an internal and an ending punctuation mark.  Also, hokku would have a seasonal heading in parentheses.  But aside from those, where is the difference in content?

It is here:

… and the turning earth

That is added “thinking.”  Why?  Because the spin of the earth on its axis is scientific knowledge.  Someone standing and seeing a leaf fall does not actually see the earth turning, spinning, rotating on its axis.  Nor do they feel it turning.  This is something added to what is seen from the intellect of the writer.  It was not actually part of the sensory experience.  It is adding”thinking.”

Now this may seem like a small matter to those unfamiliar with hokku, but really it is the gap that sets heaven and earth apart between the writing of objective hokku and the “writing poetry” attitude of modern haiku.  It is the opening that lets in all kinds of intellectualization and the attempt to make “poetry,” rather than simply to express an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Now there is nothing wrong with intellectualization if what one wishes to write is modern haiku — in fact it seems more and more obligatory in that varied community.  But to write objective hokku — daoku — requires the writer to give up intellectualization and personal imagination and commentary — to give up “thinking” — and to present only what is in the experience itself.

Look at this old verse by Shōhaku — in contemporary hokku form:

Silence;
A chestnut leaf sinks
Through the clear water.

There is nothing added by the intellect.  There is only the silence, the chestnut leaf, the clear water, and the “action” — the sinking of the leaf.  There is only the sensory experience, with no “thinking,” no “added poetry.”
In objective hokku — daoku – the verse itself is not poetry; it is the seed of poetry, and the poetry bursts into existence in the mind when the verse is read.

To put it briefly and succinctly, in modern haiku there are “poets” writing “poetry.”  In contemporary objective hokku the writer’s goal is to get out of the way so that Nature may speak — to become a clear mirror reflecting nature, adding nothing to the experience.  The key to writing successful daoku, then, is to take the essence of an experience — to condense it in words as a plant is condensed in a seed — and then to offer that seed so the reader may experience it anew.

To avoid “thinking” in hokku, then, is to avoid adding anything from the mind that is not in the experience itself.

Well, sticklers may say, isn’t identifying the sinking leaf in Shōhaku’s verse as a chestnut leaf “thinking” too? The writer uses the mind to identify it as specifically a chestnut leaf, doesn’t he?

We do not consider that “thinking,” because even though it is acquired knowledge, it is something the writer automatically knows. He sees that it is a chestnut leaf. It is what is before him. What we consider “thinking” in hokku is the addition of something from the mind to what is actually before us in the experience. If we do not see, hear, taste, touch or smell it, it is not in the experience.

Now in hokku as we practice it, there is an apparent exception to that obvious “senses only” guideline — and it is emotion. A writer may have an experience, and part of that experience is the emotion it arouses. But the important difference here between what we do in hokku and what is generally done in modern haiku is that the writer of hokku treats the emotion objectively, as Kaen does in this verse:

Loneliness:
The pattering of rain
On fallen leaves.

In such a case, the emotion is just as much present as the rain and the fallen leaves, but it is inside the writer, not present outside him. Yet still there is something here that comes from the mind of the writer instead of what is before him and his senses. Emotion like this is not quite “thinking,” in the ordinary sense, and it is still objective enough to fit within the kind of hokku we write. A verse with just a hint of thinking, as in this one, we call a shinku, to distinguish it from the completely objective daoku.

Now what do we learn from all this?

We learn to be careful to put into our hokku only what is seen, tasted, touched, smelled, or heard in an experience, not our thoughts about the experience, not anything we know that is not present in the experience. In doing so, we avoid adding “thinking” and maintain the objectivity necessary to daoku — contemporary objective hokku.

We learn also that we may use an emotion in hokku, but it should be done objectively if at all — and in the minimal way characteristic of shinku. That permits us to write verses such as this one by Buson, without falling into the excessive added “thinking” that is so often characteristic of modern haiku.

What joy!
Crossing the summer river,
Sandals in hand.

One thought on “WHAT IS “THINKING” IN HOKKU?

  1. Using the word “heaven” is also added “thinking”, in my opinion. It’s using personal imagination and a made-up concept (religion) and not part of the sensory experience.

    REPLY:
    It can be understood as simply another word for “sky.”
    David

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