A main area in which daoku differs from modern haiku is the matter of aesthetics. There are no universally-accepted aesthetic principles in modern haiku. Everything depends on individual whim. Daoku, however, has very definite principles and aesthetics that are essential to developing as a daoku writer.
one may have a verse in the outward daoku form, with everything in it correct, and still not have a daoku. That is because to be a real daoku, a verse must have the content — the aesthetics — of daoku.
By aesthetics I mean the overall atmosphere. Do not think that every aspect of daoku aesthetics must be seen or included in every verse. It is more subtle than that.
We can think of daoku aesthetics as its “taste” or the “fragrance.” It is the overall feeling one gets on reading a single daoku or a collection. In some it may be fainter, in others stronger, but however faint or strong, it should always be there.
The most obvious characteristics of the overall daoku aesthetic are these:
Poverty applies both to the outward form and to the aesthetics of daoku content. It means a sense of spareness and ordinariness rather than a sense of luxury and the exotic. Think of it like the simple — yet “plain” — beauty of Shaker furniture, or of the Walden of Thoreau, or of a Quaker meeting. It means a sense of appreciation of the few things one has instead of a sense of unappreciated abundance.
We see poverty, for example, in Onitsura’s verse:
In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
The water plantain is a very ordinary and “plain” plant, not showy at all, or expensive. Here we see it not in a costly or elaborate pot, but in an ordinary clay pot or crock, and that crock is even broken. So the poverty of this hokku is easy to see.
Poverty overlaps and relates to the next aesthetic characteristic of daoku — simplicity. We also see simplicity in Onitsura’s verse. The daoku form itself exhibits simplicity. By simplicity we mean that a verse does not have a flavor of complexity or elaborateness. It is not hard to “get,” and it is very ordinary in its words, which are not fancy or unusual or requiring a special education to understand. Daoku should not seem sophisticated. We should not think of a city dweller going to plays and art galleries and parties; instead we should think of a farmer or of a hermit in the woods, or of a dweller in a simple house with a garden in a small town.
Added and related to that, daoku should have a sense of naturalness rather than artificiality or contrivance. A verse should seem natural and unforced in its writing. It should not give the appearance of being the result of much thought and manipulation.
We see simplicity in this verse by Buson:
Bags of seeds
Do you notice that there is an underlying sense in that verse of “something happening”? We see the rough cloth bags bulging with seeds getting soaked by the rain, but there is also a sense of latency; by that we mean a sense of something that is not said, but is still there nonetheless. In this verse it is the underlying knowing that the soaked seeds are going to start swelling and sprouting in and through the holes in the weave of the cloth bag. That gives this verse the feeling of a kind of potential power that is not actually mentioned in words. What is that power? It is the sense of the growing Yang energy of spring. I will talk about the importance of Yin and Yang in daoku soon. Keep in mind that we usually have that feeling of something left unsaid in daoku.
I mentioned naturalness in relation to simplicity. Part of that is a sense of selflessness. It means the writer should not “stand out.” Daoku is not about ego or self. That is why we minimalize the use of “I,” “me,” and “my.” We usually avoid them unless they are necessary for clarity.
A third and very important characteristic of daoku is a sense of transience. Behind all of our practice there should be — sometimes fainter, sometimes stronger — the sense of evanescence, the sense that everything in this world is temporary, whether it be a blooming flower or a leaf on a tree or our lives. There is nothing which we can hold on to always, because everything in life, everything in the universe, comes only to go. It arises and then passes away.
That gives daoku another characteristic, which is a quality that is almost loneliness, but not quite — something with a feeling of solitude mixed into it. It is almost sadness but again, not quite. It is that feeling that arises in us when we realize that everything around us — our possessions, our friends, our surroundings — are transient and temporary. That too is very important in the aesthetics of daoku, the background feeling or flavor or subtle fragrance that is always behind our practice. Imagine that you have been away for 30 years from the little town where you grew up; when you go back, you see that the small shops you remember are not there, certain buildings and houses are entirely gone, and you do not recognize the people in your old neighborhood. Things are just different; it is no longer the place you remember. That is the kind of feeling transience gives rise to.
Transience is obvious in Hyakuchi’s verse:
The sold cow
Leaving the village;
Associated with transience is a sense of time passing. That is why in daoku, things that are old or worn or weathered or broken are valued; they show the passage of time. The transience in daoku is also why every verse is set within a particular season, whether it is mentioned in the verse or used as its classification. The seasons come and the seasons go, and what happens within the seasons is constantly changing.
There is of course much more to the aesthetics of daoku, but these characteristics are the basics, and every writer of daoku should know them. Remember that they are not blatantly obvious in every verse, but again are like the overall background taste or fragrance that permeates and pervades our practice of writing. If your verses have that subtle feeling, then that is what fills the correct form with what is really daoku and not some other kind of short verse.
Daoku leave us with the feeling that, even though they are very simple and ordinary, there is something significant in them that we cannot quite put our finger on, something deeper that is never said or explained in words.
Of course, of primary importance in daoku aesthetics is the overall subject matter, which we summarize as “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.”
Many people read through these aesthetics, but they do not sink in; they do not really absorb them, and consequently fail in writing. Even though they seem and are very simple and ordinary, do not think they are unimportant. To write daoku, you must realize what they mean in your life, and whether and to what extent your life reflects them.