IS HOKKU DIFFICULT?

Is hokku difficult?  The simple answer is no.

The only difficulty in hokku comes from what we add to it from our own minds.  Really, a hokku is just a meaningful experience of the senses expressed in the context of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

One can, of course, find old Japanese hokku that were difficult, because old hokku had not lost its literary connections.  So often an old hokku cannot be fully understood without knowing that it used a phrase from this or that Chinese poem, or an allusion to an historical or literary event.  I have no interest in such hokku, because they are not hokku at its best.  They are just another form of hokku as a game.  To some it was a word game, to others a literary game —
“Guess the puzzle.”

What was worthwhile in old hokku was its expression of an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.  And there is nothing difficult about that beyond the willingness to give up our “thinking” and attachment to the notion of “self” for a while, and to just go with actual experience.

Yes, one has to learn how to punctuate, one has to learn that a hokku has a “cut” between the shorter and longer parts, one has to learn how to create internal harmony in a hokku, but really these are easy things.  It is Nature that does all the work — Nature that creates an experience we feel to be significant.

Some people like to give the impression that hokku is difficult and mysterious, but it is not that at all.  The best hokku are straightforward and direct, like this summer verse by Taigi:

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

That could have been written about most any place in America on a hot day.

Our modern hokku has none of the excessive characteristics that did sometimes make old hokku difficult, because modern hokku takes what was best in old hokku and sets that as the standard.  We can cheerfully forget all the rest and leave it to scholars and academics, because it is just the chaff of the history of hokku.

David

ONE BIG, LAZY CAT IS ALL OF SUMMER

Issa wrote this summer hokku:

The big cat —
Flopped down on the fan
Asleep.

It is rather typical Issa, with his connection to animals and his kind of humor.

The point of the verse is that it is summer, which means heat.  Looking for his fan, Issa sees that a big, lazy, sleepy cat has flopped himself down right atop it, and is drowsing away.

So to understand the verse, we have to feel the heat; we have to feel the little frustration yet humor in seeing the cat lying atop the fan; and we have to feel the heaviness of the heat in the bigness of the cat.  The heat of summer has manifested itself in the bigness of the cat that is “keeping” the coolness of the fan.  That is perhaps saying too much, because we are just supposed to feel those connections, but when one is learning, these things occasionally have to be spelled out so that the beginner may know what to look for in hokku, and how they work.

This odd, unspoken connection between things is very common in hokku.  It helps bring us back out of our thoughts to the real world, in which everything and everyone is connected.  We see heat and summer in a big cat, but also in the potential coolness of the fan that we have to go to some bother to retrieve from the cat who has taken it over.  But we must not think the cat is a metaphor or a symbol.  The cat is a cat; the heat is the heat.  And yet the heat manifests in the big cat, the big cat manifests in the heat.  That is how things are “felt” in hokku.

You always read here that hokku should be something seen in a new way.  In Issa’s verse, the newness is in the connection between the summer heat, the big cat, the fan, and of course Issa himself, who is never mentioned at all in the verse.

When we read the hokku, there is no Issa; we become the experiencer.  So we cannot say the hokku is “about” Issa.  In hokku there should be no “fixed” writer visible.  That allows the reader to become the one to whom the hokku is happening.  And each time we read it, it happens anew.  But in hokku we must take one more step and say there is no experiencer.  There is just the experience.   That is why we say in hokku that the writer must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.

David