An early summer daoku from this morning’s walk:
Sheltering under a maple
With rain dripping all around;
An early summer daoku from this morning’s walk:
Sheltering under a maple
With rain dripping all around;
As I have mentioned many times, when R. H. Blyth wrote about haiku in his four- volume set under that title, as well as in his two-volume History of Haiku and in his other writings, what he was really talking about was hokku. Yes, he included verses of Masaoka Shiki — the “founder” of haiku — in his anthology, but as we have seen, Shiki for all practical purposes still wrote hokku; he just re-named his verses and declared his “haiku” independent of linked verse, though hokku had already often been written independent of linked verse even in the times of Bashō.
So that means generally, when we read Blyth, we can simply substitute “hokku” for the anachronistic term popular in the Japan of Blyth’s time, “haiku”; and I shall do that in what follows.
When, in his book Oriental Humour, Blyth writes of hokku, he says this:
“Chinese culture was to a large extent that of rich people, at least of scholars, but in Japan, especially from the seventeenth century [the time of Bashō], there was a poetry of poverty, quite different from that of the Renaissance culture of Europe, based as much of it was upon power and wealth.
Senryu, no less than hokku, arises from poverty, that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty.”
Further, he writes something that many may find shocking:
“To live the life of hokku it is necessary to be poor and obscure; it is a difficult and narrow way, and few and fewer there be that find it.” (pages 208-209)
Elsewhere, Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write hokku, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.
Now what does all this mean for the writer of hokku today?
Well, it does not mean you have to get rid of everything you own and empty your bank account and live on the street. It does mean that we — as writers of hokku — should live simply, non-materialistically, and close enough to Nature to be keenly aware of its changes within the seasons. It also means that we should be able to appreciate simple food and simple pleasures such as a warm blanket on a cold night, or a cool drink of water on a hot day. We should be able to recognize the essentials in life, and not live as though possessions answered spiritual needs (which they definitely do not). It means we live modestly rather than extravagantly, and we do not try to “make a name for ourselves,” which simply feeds the ego — and hokku is definitely not “ego” verse.
On reading of “… that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty,” one thinks of those like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote ‘The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.’ We should be very aware of just what we choose to add to those basics in our lives — and why. Blyth once suggested that we should have few possessions, but those few should be of the best quality for the purpose that we can manage.
Hokku asks us to look — as Thoreau once did — for the essential facts of life, and not to clutter it with all that is unnecessary and pointlessly distracting — all that our consumer-based society tries to convince us we need — in spite of the environmental and spiritual cost.
Of course in the Japan of the old writers, poverty was common and often right at the door. We live in easier times today if we are fortunate (and many are not, even in the supposed “wealthiest country in the world”) — but we should still keep to the simplicity and selflessness of hokku.
That poverty also extends to the verse we write. Hokku is not a florid or extravagant kind of verse. It uses simple words in simple ways. It does not try to be clever or intellectual — in fact hokku deliberately avoids intellectualism of all kinds — including the luxury of a writer ornamenting or elaborating or commenting needlessly on his subject. Everything is kept very bare, using only what is essential to convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons. That is why we often mention three of the important characteristics of hokku as poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.
That does not, of course, mean that the life of hokku is without pleasure, but it is not the kind of pleasure modern society often so frantically seeks. Instead, the life of hokku is one of simple pleasures, and those may be found in many places, and often without cost. Here is a hokku in daoku form by Bashō:
Among the stones
In the stone seller’s yard —
菊 の 花 咲く や 石屋 の 石 の 間
Kiku no hana saku ya ishiya no ishi no ai
Chrysanthemum’s flower bloom ya stone-seller ‘s stones among
We have entered autumn by the old hokku calendar — the decline of the year. Autumn is the progressive weakening and retreat of the vital forces in Nature. In old China, this weakening was called the “return to the root,” and that is precisely what we see. The sap falls in the trees, and many plants either die (if they are annuals) or the energy goes into the roots below the soil surface (if they are perennials).
In time, autumn corresponds with mid afternoon to twilight. In human life, it corresponds with the beginnings and progress of old age. It is the time of increasing loss, which is also why it is the time — in agricultural communities — for storing away food for the coming of winter. In terms of Yin (passive, cool) and Yang energies (active, warm), Autumn is declining Yang and increasing Yin.
Autumn, in hokku, is above all the time when we become aware of the impermanence of things, both in Nature and in human life. We see it in the withering of plants, in the coloring and falling of leaves, and in the change and gradually cooling of the weather.
The beginning of autumn is a good time to review some of the differences between hokku and modern haiku. Both are written today, but they generally have very different principles. I know that people involved in the modern haiku community — either directly or indirectly — come here and read my site, and sometimes it is obvious that they do not understand that hokku and haiku are fundamentally two very different things — and that it is a mistake to confuse them. If you approach hokku as though it were haiku, you will never understand it.
Haiku — though in name it began in Japan with the reforms of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — is really a modern creation. In the West, it grew out of misunderstandings of the old hokku, which was seen in terms familiar to Western poets, and viewed through the lens of Western notions of poetry. That led it off on a very different course from that of hokku, and modern haiku has continued on that somewhat erratic and rudderless course today. Haiku has become whatever an individual writer says it is — so there are many different kinds of haiku. The one constant is generally that matters such as form and content and aesthetics are left to individual choice — and that accounts for why there are different “sects” in the modern haiku community, and why “haiku” has become an umbrella term covering many disparate kinds of verse under the very wide “haiku” umbrella.
The tendency in modern haiku is for it to diverge ever farther from the hokku that originally was its inspiration, however misunderstood in the West it may have been. But given the great range of variation among modern haiku writers, there are some closer to hokku and some farther and farther away.
What are some of the differences between hokku and haiku?
First, there is the form. As we have seen, form in modern haiku varies considerably. Some use no capitalization; some use no or minimal punctuation; some vary the number of lines, or even reduce it to one word; and some — surprisingly — still follow the notion (based on a misunderstanding) that it should be written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. All of these are permissible in modern haiku.
In contemporary hokku, by contrast, the form is standardized. A hokku consists of three lines, the middle often — but not always — longer than the other two. It is divided into two segments: a longer portion of two lines, and a shorter of one. The shorter segment may come either at the beginning or the end. The two segments are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark (not just a hyphen, as is often done in modern haiku). The hokku also ends with appropriate punctuation. This standardized form works very well, and makes controversy over form quite unnecessary.
A significant difference between hokku and modern haiku is that much of the modern haiku community pays little or no attention to season. In hokku season is crucially important. Every hokku is written in one of the four seasons, and is also to be read in that season. Summer hokku are not written in winter, nor are winter hokku written in some other season. That practice helps to keep the writer constantly in touch with Nature and the changing seasons. Old hokku used specific season words, but that practice became eventually so complicated that it took years for a learner to master it — which is really contrary to the simplicity of hokku. In modern hokku, we simply head every verse with the season in which it is written, like this:
That way, when hokku are read or shared or anthologized, one always knows the appropriate season for each verse.
Related to the difference in use of season between modern haiku and hokku is the great difference in attitude toward Nature. In hokku, Nature is all important. The very definition of modern hokku is that it has as its subject matter “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, seen in the context of the seasons.” Modern haiku, however (except for the more conservative segments), may abandon Nature entirely, resulting in verses about modern technology and many other topics quite contrary to hokku’s focus on Nature.
Then there is the matter of topics. Modern hokku is a form of contemplative verse, the result of its very old influences from Buddhism and Daoism, which continue today as non-dogmatic spirituality. That means it avoids topics that trouble or disturb the mind, such as romance, sex, and violence. Modern hokku also has a decided preference for verses written from actual experience, whereas in modern haiku, verses are frequently composed entirely from the imagination of the writer — resulting in haiku that are completely “fictional,” including even haiku about science fiction.
In hokku, however, it is preferred to put aside the intellect as much as possible. That is why modern hokku are generally quite objective (the term used for such objective hokku is “daoku”). In hokku we also tend to avoid the use of ego terms such as “I,” “me,” and “my,” except when doing so is impractical. The point of this is to get the writer out of the way so that Nature may speak. In modern haiku, by contrast, there is often an emphasis on the individual writer — and on the writer as “poet.” In modern hokku we generally do not refer to the writer of hokku as a “poet,” nor do we refer to hokku as “poetry,” because both terms — given their Western meanings and frequent subjectivity — are very misleading when applied to hokku. Where in hokku the objective is generally favored (the omission of the writer’s comments and opinions about the subject) — taking the emphasis off the writer — modern haiku often favors the subjective (including the writer’s thoughts and commentary about the subject).
Now as mentioned, there are some conservative segments of the modern haiku community that are closer to hokku in some respects, and some very experimental segments that are quite far from it. I noted in a recent book review that one modern haiku writer advocates a return to spirituality, which is something a large segment of the modern haiku community had long discarded — though it has always been a part of modern hokku. And that writer (Gabriel Rosenstock) also advocated a “disappearance” of the ego — which is quite in keeping with the hokku attitude. How these manifest in writing, however, often still reveals significant differences between the aesthetics of contemporary hokku and even the more conservative segments of modern haiku.
Here we can look to the old biblical adage, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” It is not just through the differences or similarities in principle that we distinguish modern haiku from hokku, but also in practice — in the aesthetics of the verse on the page. Modern haiku — in spite of some occasional similarities to hokku — generally lacks the deeper aesthetic background that contemporary hokku has inherited from old hokku — something that was lost when hokku was re-interpreted by Western poets in terms of what they already knew of Western poetics, resulting in the more profound aspects of hokku being abandoned, misunderstood, or ignored as modern haiku developed.
Because of its definite principles and aesthetics, hokku takes time and patience to learn, even though it is ultimately quite simple. Modern haiku is generally considered an “instant” kind of verse that anyone can quickly learn to write. Because of that, and because of its rather open boundaries, many choose to write haiku. Also, there is the obvious fact that modern haiku is far better known than hokku. Many people have never heard of the hokku. When I first began teaching it years ago, it was common for people in the modern haiku community to express complete disbelief when I told them that Bashō and Buson and the rest of the old Japanese writers wrote hokku, not “haiku.” And there was a time in the 20th century when the Haiku Society of America actually wanted writers of dictionaries to declare the word hokku obsolete.
That confusion still exist today, with some in the modern haiku community defining hokku as the “first verse of a series of linked verses,” completely ignoring the fact that hokku were often written independent of linked verse even in the days of Bashō.
Whether to write hokku or haiku comes down, like many things, to simply a matter of personal preference. Not everyone has the “hokku spirit” and appreciation of Nature that hokku requires. Some simply wish to “express themselves,” and modern haiku is a much more fitting means to that end than hokku, which has just the opposite goal: to get the writer out of the way, so that Nature may speak.
For those, however, who want to continue on the old path, writing of Nature and the changing seasons and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, hokku is ideal.
The August morning;
After pruning the lavender,
Smelling of lavender.
Where I live, we are now entering the hottest part of the summer. In these times the two great contrasts are heat and coolness, and each gives meaning to the other.
In old hokku, the moon at night was always seen as a cool contrast to the heat of sun in the day. But coolness may also be expressed by sound, and when we have sound added to sight, that enhances the cool sensation, as we see in this old hokku by Fuseki:
Tsuki suzushi uma arai iru kawa no oto
moon cool horse wash-is river ‘s sound
We may loosely translate it in daoku form as:
The sound of horses
Bathing in the river.
It is very objective and clear, giving us only the essence of the scene/event, without any comment or opinion — any “thinking” — added by the writer; and that is the definition of daoku — objective hokku.
Writing daoku (objective hokku) in English is really very simple.
First, you need an experience involving Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. And for that, of course you need a connection to the natural world. One cannot expect to sit in a city apartment all the time and still write daoku, because there is no connection with Nature in such a place.
That means to write daoku, one must get out and connect with Nature, whether in a home garden, a park, or a trail through a field or forest, or a place by a stream, a pond, a river, the seashore, and so on. You get the idea.
Next, do not think of daoku as “poetry.” Do not think of yourself as a “poet.”
Think of daoku as recording an experience of the senses — whether seeing, tasting, hearing, touching, smelling, or a combination of any of these. But it is not just any experience. It has to be one that for some inexplicable reason, we feel to be significant. If someone asks us why it is significant, we cannot say — and that is why it is expressed in the simple words of daoku. The daoku evokes the experience, and with that comes the feeling of a significance beyond the words.
In daoku the words should be the means of transmitting the experience. And to keep that experience pure and strong, the writer should not add any of his or her own thinking about the experience. Daoku should just transmit the experience, free of any commentary or interpretation or elaboration by the writer.
When we write such a verse in English — or translate an old Japanese hokku with those characteristics into English — the result is a daoku — an objective hokku.
Here is a hokku in transliterated Japanese:
Hirou mono mina ikite iru shiohi kana
And here is the daoku it becomes in English:
Everything picked up
Chiyo is walking along the beach at low tide. She reaches down to pick up some seemingly lifeless shells, but is surprised to feel and see them moving in her hand; they are not dead, but alive.
Now as you can see, all that the writer needed to do was to put that experience into simple words. In English, we divide the result into three lines consisting of two parts — one longer, one shorter, and those two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation. Each line begins with a capital letter, and the whole verse ends with another appropriate punctuation mark.
It is just that easy.
Of course there are some things to keep in mind. A hokku is not just a random assemblage of things. We should feel a relationship among the elements of a hokku, just as the “moving things” in Chiyo-ni’s verse relate to the beach at low tide. And every hokku as daoku is set within the context of a particular season, which we add as a heading in parentheses, so it will be transmitted to the reader.
Hokku — and consequently daoku — should be written and read within the appropriate season, which keeps us in harmony with the seasons and their changes. The exception is that when learning, examples out of the appropriate season may be used.
It is also helpful to write daoku that show us something experienced in a new way, from a different perspective. That helps to keep the experience fresh and new. And never forget that feeling of un-speak-able significance. If a daoku is not felt to have that significance, it tends to be just uninteresting and mediocre.
Remember to keep daoku brief. In English there is no fixed number of required syllables. Use ordinary, everyday words. Above all, transmit the experience, not your thoughts about the experience.
Over twenty years ago, I was dismayed by what I was seeing of the poor quality of modern haiku on the Internet. Though many were writing it, none seemed to have an understanding of how — or even if — what they were writing related to the aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku. Most had never even heard the term hokku in those days, and thought old writers such as Bashō and Onitsura had written only haiku — not realizing that haiku was just an innovation begun at the end of the 19th century, long after Bashō’s time.
In an effort to remedy that, I began teaching online the basics of writing a brief verse form in English that was more closely related to the old hokku, and better reflected its aesthetics. The approach of the modern haiku community, by contrast, was simply to write whatever one wished as haiku, regardless of subject matter or aesthetics, as long as it was brief. The old hokku connection with Nature and the seasons was largely abandoned. The result was that modern haiku became whatever a given writer chose to call haiku — which is still very much the situation today. Modern haiku has no universally accepted standards, other than perhaps brevity. It ranges from the very conservative to the extremely innovative. So “haiku” today is an umbrella term that covers a confusingly wide range of often very different kinds of verse.
It was important in avoiding confusion, to distinguish the modern adaptation of hokku I was teaching from modern haiku, so I called it what it had originally been named for the greater part of its history — hokku. I did so because what I taught was a continuation of what I felt were the best qualities of old Japanese hokku. I left needless cultural and linguistic baggage behind, and taught a hokku that bridged the gap from the old and often more complicated hokku of old Japan to the simpler needs of a modern hokku reduced to its essentials, yet still based on the best of the old aesthetics.
Over time, however, it became obvious that even the term “hokku” needed some adjustment. It could (somewhat confusingly) signify either modern verses inspired by old hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, or old hokku in Japanese. Further, what I taught expressed my view that a large part of what was included in the practice of old Japanese hokku was not, in my view, worth continuing as a modern practice in English. In earlier times there were different kinds of Japanese hokku, ranging from the very objective to the extremely subjective. My preference always tended to the more objective, which to me expressed not only hokku at its best, but also the deep roots of hokku in the aesthetic influences of Chinese Daoism and Zen Buddhism.
That is when I decided to call the modern English-language adaptation of the old objective hokku that I teach and prefer “daoku.” It clearly distinguishes that category of modern verse not only from old hokku in Japanese, but also from other modern forms of brief verse such as the varieties falling under the umbrella term “haiku.”
Occasionally, however, one might wish to write a slightly more subjective verse that shows some “thinking” instead of pure objectivity. We see that kind of “thinking” in this verse by Bashō:
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.
“Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the addition of “thinking” — a subjective interpretation or commentary on the objective first line of the verse.
For such slightly subjective verses I have adopted the name shinku, to distinguish them from the pure objectivity of daoku. The word shinku comes from a Japanese pronunciation of the old Chinese character for mind — “shin” — and the word for verse — “ku.”
Many old Japanese hokku are far too subjective — have too much thinking or intellectualizing by the writer — to fall under either of these classifications. I do not think they represent the best of old hokku, so they may safely be left to the literary history books.
When excessively subjective verses are removed, the two remaining classifications — daoku and shinku — offer a practical and convenient path forward for those wishing to follow the best essential aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku by applying them to writing new hokku for the modern English-speaking world. And of course what I say here about writing daoku and shinku in English may also generally be easily applied to writing them in other modern languages as well.
Of the two categories, my recommendation for writers is to focus mainly on daoku — objective hokku — while using shinku only sparingly.
When writing shinku, keep in mind that the subjective aspect should be slight, and it is best to generally combine it with objectivity, as we saw in Bashō’s “Octopus Traps” verse.
We see that slight subjectivity also in this spring verse by Buson:
As the petals fall,
The branches of the plum
It is not hard to see that “As the petals fall” is the objective part, and “the branches of the plum / grow older” is the subjective part — the interpretation of, or commentary on the petals by the writer.
It is sometimes more difficult to distinguish subjective and objective, as in this spring verse by Seifu:
The faces of dolls;
Without intending to,
I have grown old.
Still, we can see that “without intending to” is a bit of “thinking” added by the writer.
Verses like that of Seifu above show how one can still “tell the truth” in slightly subjective verses — and that is what we want in hokku of either kind: telling the truth, whether purely objective, or slightly subjective.
A spring hokku by Charai:
Plum blossoms —
Even though the snow is falling,
Ume no hana yuki ga furite mo saki ni keri
Plum ‘s flowers snow ga falling too blooming at keri
In a previous posting, we saw that while all daoku is hokku, not all hokku is daoku. In the English language they are identical in form, but can be differentiated by content. Daoku is objective, while hokku can sometimes be more subjective.
Here is an example — a spring verse by Sodō:
宿の春 何もなきこそ 何もあれ
Yado no haru nani mo naki koso nani mo areDwelling ‘s spring what-too is-not at-all what-too is
Though quite cryptic in a direct translation, we can paraphrase it in English as:
My spring dwelling;
Though nothing at all is there,
All is there.
Now as you see, “my” is not included in the original — only implied.
Blyth translates it as:
In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, —
There is everything!
This is obviously a philosophical hokku, not an objective verse. It shows us the “thinking” of the writer. There is a place for such verses, and this one is often quoted because people find its paradoxical nature superficially very “Zen,” and some in the modern haiku movement have eagerly adopted the use of paradox in writing. It is not, however, suitable for daoku, which avoids subjective and philosophical comments, preferring to remain with the concrete rather than the abstract — with things and sensory experience rather than our ideas and musings about them.
That is why this verse is not useful as a model for daoku — an example of “all daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”
We can clearly see the difference if we look at an objective spring hokku by Buson that is very appropriate as a daoku model:
燭の火を 燭にうつすや 春の夕
Shoku no hi wo shoku ni utsusu ya haru no yū
Candle ‘s flame wo candle at copy ya spring ‘s evening
Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.
It makes a very good daoku, because it gives us only the golden light of the candles in the shadows of the spring evening, as we see one used to light the other. It is very objective — experiencing, not “thinking.” It has a wonderful simplicity — ordinary things in ordinary words. In this lighting of one candle with another, we feel a deep, unspoken significance — and of course behind it all is the impermanence so important to the atmosphere of hokku.
Notice that an action is taking place, yet there is no “I,” “me,” or “my.” That enables us to focus on the action — on the sensory experience — without being distracted by the “self” of a writer.
Perhaps it has occurred to some of you that by introducing daoku as a Western form of brief verse in the aesthetic tradition of old objective hokku, we have eliminated a great deal of bother and needless controversy.
In presenting it as a verse form with its own fixed form and aesthetics, no room is left for the bickering and ongoing controversies that so marred the discussions of hokku and haiku from the mid 20th century onward. One may argue about hokku and haiku and the appropriate terminology and aesthetics for these, but daoku — as a modern verse form in the tradition of old Japanese objective hokku — is what it is, and there is nothing to argue about. What a sense of relief and peace!
If someone asks us what we write and practice, we can just reply, “Daoku, based on the aesthetic tradition of old Japanese objective hokku.” If someone asks us if it is just like old hokku, we can say, “No — it is based on essence of the best of the old objective hokku aesthetics that developed out of the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Daoism, but being written in English, it has its own definite form and standards and aesthetics.”
Daoku remains so close to old Japanese objective hokku in its aesthetics that we can use many of those old hokku — translated into modern English daoku form — to teach it. That enables us to honestly say that daoku continues the aesthetics of the best of that old tradition in our modern world.
Further, daoku takes us completely out of the ongoing “haiku wars” that began in print in the mid 20th century and continue on into our times on the Internet. Because daoku has fixed form and aesthetic standards, there is no need to argue with others over the form and aesthetics of modern haiku or old hokku. All may write whatever kinds of verse they prefer, whether some category of old hokku, or some variation of modern haiku — or, as we do — the now clearly defined modern verse form daoku. No argument over terminology is needed any longer.
I will continue to use the term hokku to describe the old Japanese verse form, because that is not only its original name as used for centuries, but it is also the correct modern academic term. When discussing modern haiku (which I may on occasion need to do), that terminology will refer to the variations of brief verse that were loosely inspired in the 20th century by the old hokku, continuing into the present. When describing the kind of verse that gave rise to the aesthetics of daoku, I will likely refer to it as “old Japanese objective hokku.” I may sometimes loosely refer to individual old Japanese objective hokku — when they fit daoku standards — as “daoku,” but only with the understanding that this is only a convenient aesthetic descriptor, not the original name.
It should gradually become clear through all of this that theoretically, one could read and write daoku with no reference to its roots in the old Japanese hokku at all. No need to know anything of Japanese hokku and its history and aesthetics, as long as the definite aesthetic standards of daoku itself are maintained. There is, however, no need to do that, and old objective Japanese hokku are very helpful in learning the aesthetics and spirit proper to daoku, when translated into the daoku form.
In my view, daoku is a very practical and appropriate way to continue the old objective hokku tradition in our modern world. As the best of that old objective hokku tradition stripped to its essentials, it leaves aside the great weight of baggage that has accumulated around hokku and haiku over the centuries and more specifically in the West, from the mid 20th century onward. It enables a fresh, new beginning, very appropriate to the coming of spring in just a few days from now.
If daoku speaks to your condition, it is there for you. And if you prefer following another path, everyone is free to choose. In any case, those who decide to learn and practice daoku can now happily say goodbye to the ongoing arguments and animosity of the “haiku wars.”
As I have said before, when I began teaching hokku — using that term –on the Internet — most people did not even know what the word meant. They were accustomed to the anachronistic term “haiku,” which they retroactively applied to the short verses of Onitsura, Bashō, and all the rest — even though that was not what those writers called them.
The reason I revived the term hokku for my use in teaching was not only that it was the original name of the verse form, but also it became quite obvious that it was very important to distinguish it from what modern haiku had become. Though modern haiku was loosely inspired by the old hokku — largely as a misperception and misunderstanding of it — in general it no longer reflected (nor does it today) the aesthetic values of hokku.
Today, hokku and haiku are two often widely divergent verse forms. My preference is for the hokku, while those who want a less challenging form may prefer modern haiku.
Now that we are about to enter spring — the time of new beginnings — it is also time for me to make yet another distinction. As readers here know, I have always favored hokku that reflect the traditional aesthetics hokku developed due to its roots in Buddhism — specifically Zen, which had a deep effect on Japanese culture — and in Daoism. Those origins gave hokku its specific character — its appreciation of Nature and the changing seasons, its sense of the transience of all things, as well as its selflessness and simplicity.
Old Japanese hokku did not always live up to those qualities. Mixed in among what to me were the best hokku, there were also a great number of hokku that displayed varying degrees of subjectivity. Subjectivity in hokku is adding the thoughts, opinions, comments, cleverness, intellection (“thinking”) and self of the writer. While subjective hokku may be interesting — or even quite good — as poetry, they cannot go beyond that. They leave an emphasis on the writer as “poet” and on what is written as “poetry.”
By contrast, in my view the unique contribution of the best of old hokku was its objectivity — presenting an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature directly, without “thinking” or cleverness or the writer getting in the way. It does not convey an experience through ideas, but rather through sensory experience — seeing, tasting touching smelling, and hearing.
What all this comes down to is that we may divide old hokku (and even modern hokku, to some extent) into subjective and objective verses. Subjective verses are more like what we are accustomed to in Western poetry, though of course considerably briefer. Objective hokku, however, are often quite unlike the bulk of Western poetry, though fragments of objectivity may be found within it, here and there.
To me, objective hokku were the best the old hokku had to offer, and that is what I like to teach. The term by itself, however, may be subject to some misunderstanding, because what is objective hokku to me — which of course includes Nature and the seasons as its foundation — may not be what others think of when hearing that term.
That is why — some time ago — I first introduced the word daoku for the kind of hokku I teach. The word is a combination of the Chinese dao — meaning “way” — the way of Nature, the way of the universe — a way of being in harmony — and the Japanese term ku, meaning “verse,” though it was borrowed from China and originally meant “song.” That gives us daoku — which we may think of as the verse of harmony with Nature.
Because it is a newly-coined term, it can be given a very specific meaning, and that meaning is basically what I have been teaching all along as hokku — more specifically objective hokku — and now very specifically as daoku. I think the use of this term — when supplied with a more complete definition — will prevent much misunderstanding as to precisely what I am talking about when I discuss the aesthetics, principles, standards, techniques and practice of hokku — the kind of hokku I prefer and teach.
Consequently, in future postings here, you will read less about hokku (though of course the term will still be used when appropriate) and much more about daoku — the particular form of objective hokku that to me exemplifies the greatest contribution old hokku made to the world. So when you see me referring to this or that verse of an old Japanese hokku writer as daoku, you will know that I am referring to a particular kind of largely Nature, season, and sense-based hokku. Yes, it is still hokku, but the use of the new terminology will enable me (and you as well, should you choose to adopt the term) to be very specific and clear as to precisely the kind of verse I teach, very clearly distinguishing it from all other kinds of objective hokku and hokku in general.
Expect more on the principles and practice of daoku as we enter spring (according to the old calendar) with Candlemas and the beginning of February. For long-time readers here, it will look very familiar as what I have long taught as simply “hokku” but now finer distinctions will be possible, and should lead to greater clarity in understanding.