HOKKU: DON’T THINK, JUST EXPERIENCE

In the previous posting, I paraphrased R. H. Blyth’s definition of hokku: A non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

We can think of this as referring both to the initial experience of the writer and to the experience of the person reading the writer’s verse.

There is an old hokku by Bashō that will help in understanding:

(Summer)

So cool —
The wall against my feet;
A midday nap.

I have written before that for practical purposes and to avoid confusion, it is best not to think of this as poetry, but rather as the “seed of poetry.”  It is an experience put into simple words that when read, create a sensory-aesthetic experience in the mind of the reader, and THAT experience is the poetry.  It is not on the page, which only provides the seed that suddenly sprouts into life in the mind when read.  That is why I generally refer to hokku simply as “verse.”  If we call hokku poetry, people easily confuse it with all the ideas and characteristics they have picked up from Western poetry, and that baggage has contributed to the thorough misperception of hokku in the West and, incidentally to the rise of modern haiku as a verse form separate from traditional hokku.

When we say that hokku is a “non-intellectual sensory experience,” we mean that it is an experience of one or more of the five senses: seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing.  There is no thinking involved.  When you touch a wall with the soles of your feet on a hot day, the wall feels cool.  You do not have to think about it, or reason about it, or use it as a symbol for something, or make a metaphor or simile of it.  It is what it is, a sensory experience of coolness made pleasant by the fact that it is a hot day in summer.  So when I say there is “no thinking” in hokku, that is what I mean.  You don’t need to think to get the message.  You just experience it immediately through the senses, in this case the sense of touch.

And when I say that hokku is an experience “outside the conscious will” I mean that the experience of the coolness of the wall is not something you will into happening; it just happens.  You put your bare feet against the wall, and the wall feels cool.  The same happens when you read the verse.  You do not have to consciously will an experience to happen in your mind; it just happens when your read the simple words of the verse.

That is what Blyth means when he speaks of “Zen” in hokku.  He means precisely how this verse conveys its sensation, with

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

In hokku, nothing stands between the reader and the experience.  Look at this verse by Taigi:

(Summer)

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

It is a very warm and drowsy day.  Lying down for a noon-time nap, the person slowly moves the fan back and forth to create a hint of  cool wind; but the heat and the drowsiness finally win out, and as the person falls asleep,

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

In this verse we have the heat of summer and how it affects humans.  We are talking about one particular human, but in doing so, we are talking about humans in general.  That is why we so easily “get” the verse, why we feel the warmth and the drowsiness of the day in the hand that stops moving.  The verse expresses what summer is and what humans are, and what humans in summer are.  It shows us, as I always say hokku does,

Nature, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

You will recall that all hokku are set in a particular season.  This is a summer hokku, so that is the primary setting.  The secondary setting is “A midday nap.”  And in the primary and secondary settings combined, we see what happens:

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

Hokku is just that simple.  There is no need to make it seem complicated or mysterious or difficult.  It only requires that the writer be open to the inherent poetry of sensory experience and to our intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All that is required of the reader is to put aside “thinking” for the moment and to simply experience the verse as it “opens” in the mind.

 

David

*
Hiya-hiyato  kabe wo fumaete hirune kana
Cold-feels    wall  on  tread     midday-nap kana

Hirune shite   te no ugokiyamu uchiwa kana
Midday-nap doing   hand ‘s moving-not fan kana

 

 

A LOAD OF WIND

Amid the heat,
He carries a load of wind —
The fan seller.

The arrangement of that summer hokku by Kakō is necessarily different in English.  The original is literally

Wind load carries heat ya fan-seller

But let’s look at the English structure:

Amid the heat,
He carries a load of wind —
The fan seller.

A setting in hokku is generally the BIG part of it, the wider context in which something takes place — often, but certainly not always, the weather.  Here the setting is:

Amid the heat

The subject is obviously the fan seller, but in this verse we find the very common and useful technique of “repeated subject,” where the subject is referred to once by a pronoun (he, she, it), an then again by its actual name or title.  So we see

HE carries a load of wind —
THE FAN SELLER

Both “he” and “the fan seller” are the same subject.  This hokku technique is endlessly useful, because it fits the syntax of English very well.

And finally we have the action, that which is moving or changing in the verse.   What is the fan seller doing?  The answer is the action:

(He) carries a load of wind.

So this verse has setting, subject, and action, and is consequently what we call a “standard” hokku.  There are countless examples of this pattern, many of them excellent verses.  But keep in mind, if you are a new reader here, that this is not the only pattern.  If you visit this site regularly, you will learn more of them, and can then apply them to your own practice of hokku.

This verse has both the sensation (the heat and the anticipation of coolness) and the subtle humor characteristic of hokku as a whole.  Remember that the humor of hokku is very slight and sometimes almost imperceptible.  It is not at all the “milk-spouting-from-the-nose” kind of humor we think of in today’s society.  It is more like the smile on the Mona Lisa — sometimes it seems to be there, and sometimes….

David