AGAIN AND AGAIN

Onitsura wrote this spring hokku:

又もまた花にちられてうつらうつら
Mata mo mata hana ni chirarete utsura utsura

Here it is in daoku form:

Again and again
As the blossoms fall —
Nodding off.

It is a very relaxing verse, with the gentle falling of the blossoms and the drowsiness of the experience.  Notice how it is expressed with no need for the word “I.”  Notice too that this is a good example of something seen in a different way — which is very helpful in composing good daoku.

A Japanese would know from the word hana in the original that the blossoms are most likely cherry blossoms, but in English it could be any blossoming tree scattering its petals in the spring.

We could be more specific, like this:

Again and again
As cherry blossoms fall —
Nodding off.

 

David

DEFINING HOKKU

Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:

DEFINING HOKKU

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:
Dawn;

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.

David

A LOAD OF WIND

Today, two somewhat unconventional hokku on the same topic — the heat of summer:

First, a slightly loose translation of a famous hokku by Kakô, in keeping with the rising temperatures in my area today:

Carrying a load of wind
In this heat —
The fan-seller.

It is almost too clever for hokku, but is saved by the fact that the reader can feel both the heat of the day and the potential wind of the fans with which the seller is loaded down. It is an odd variation on just what I have been talking about in the past few postings — the use of opposites in hokku, thus showing the character of both elements. In this verse, the heat is a strong yang element, and the (potential) wind from the fans is the yin element. We can also sense the oppressiveness of the day’s heat in the words “carrying a load,” offset by the significance of that load. So the wind in this verse is both not there and there.

We see something similar in this second hokku, by Onitsura:

That mountain —
It’s where today’s heat
Has gone.

It was a hot day, but as it moves toward evening, the heat goes away. Where has it gone? Well, there is that high mountain; the heat is not here, and that is the only other obvious place, so it must be there.

For those who like seeing the originals with literal translations:

1. Kaze ikka ninau atsusa ya uchiwauri
Wind load carries heat ya fan-seller

2. Ano yama mo kyô no atsusa no yukue kana
That mountain mo today ‘s heat ‘s whereabouts kana

David

MELTING SNOW

As regular readers here know, I treat many of the verses of Shiki as hokku because they are hokku in form and content, in spite of his use of the revisionist term “haiku” for what he wrote.

Melting Snow On the flank of Catstye Cam

Knowing that, we are in a position to examine one of his verses of early spring:

With snow melting,
The village  releases
The horses.

If you have been a diligent reader of hokku postings here, you will recognize right away that this verse exhibits two techniques found in hokku:

1.  Expression of season through the interplay of Yin and Yang;

2.  Internal reflection.

We find Yin and Yang in the melting of the snow, which shows us that the Yang energies (light, warmth, activity) are in the ascendant and the Yin energies (darkness, cold, inactivity) are diminishing.  That is obvious in the melting of the snow.

We see internal reflection in the harmony between the melting of the snow (increasing Yang, water freed from its ice state) and the freeing of the horses (from an inactive to an active state) — in fact they are the same thing, expressed on the one hand in snow melting to running water, on the other in horses, kept largely inactive in winter, freed to run and leap about in the fields and newly appearing grass.  The verse shows us the growing Yang of spring.

Onitsura’s hokku is more simple and subtle, particularly in a literal translation of the original:

Spring’s water — here and there is seen….

What Onitsura really means to convey would, in English, be more like this:

The waters of spring,
Seen here, there,
And everywhere. 

Early spring is a very wet time, with the snow melting and running all over in little rivulets, and spring showers just increasing the flow.  But the water is not the same, psychologically, as that of autumn or winter — it is the water of spring, and in it we feel growing Yang and increasing activity.

David

THE ESSENTIAL IMPORTANCE OF YIN AND YANG IN HOKKU

I often talk about Yin and Yang in hokku.  In fact I talk about them so much that another name for the kind of hokku I teach might be “Yin-Yang” hokku.  That is how important it is — so important that one cannot fully understand hokku without it.

In old Asia and in hokku, it was something people grew up with.  It was even the principle upon which old traditional Asian medicine and philosophy were based.  But it has to be actually taught to Western students, because they generally are not familiar with it.

I will try to make it brief, so this posting will condense a lot of information that the student should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of hokku.

You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol.  It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:

300px-yin_yang-1-svg

Yin and Yang are the two opposite, yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe.  They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in hokku.  Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony.  So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang.  In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together.  When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.

What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms?  This is very ancient knowledge.

Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;

That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes.  Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang.  You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page:  the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang.  When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin;  when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.

As already mentioned, everything in the universe is — at any moment — in some stage of the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.

In hokku this is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the principle of internal reflection.  In hokku the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another.  In addition, in hokku there are two kinds of harmony:  there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast.  Both of these important aspects of hokku relate to Yin and Yang.

We already know that time and the seasons are essential to hokku.  Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:

Let’s start with deepest winter.  Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin.  And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang.  That is exactly what happens.  In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow.  We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.”  It grows and spring begins.  So spring is increasing Yang.  Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang.  Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases.  That is what is happening in spring.  Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season.  The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin.  A seed of Yin starts to grow within it.  Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining.  Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root.  We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang.  But in autumn it falls — Yin.

Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season.  Then the whole cycle begins anew.

This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the hokku principle of internal reflection:

Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring.  Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins.  One grows gradually older — the autumn of life.  And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate, and we die — deep winter.

The same thing applies to each day:

The middle of night is deep Yin.  Dawn nears and Yang increases.  We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus of the birds.  Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases.  Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it.  The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows.  Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.

So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:

Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;

We see Yin and Yang in a landscape painting.  Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin.  And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place.  And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.

In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how hokku work without it.  In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.

We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:
Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.
To this we add our poetic hokku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin.  So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period in the season, which of course is very “hokku.”

You can see from all of that what a very excellent spring poem this hokku of Onitsura is.  And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all.  That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to hokku as I teach it — because not only was it essential to old hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.

If you have “been around the block,” as the saying goes — if you are familiar with books written on all kinds of short verse that are descended in one way or another from the hokku,  and familiar with journals and internet sites, you will realize suddenly that I am the only person teaching this relationship of Yin and Yang in old and modern hokku.  You will not find this teaching of how it relates to hokku in practice anywhere else.  Why?  Because other kinds of brief modern verse — modern haiku in particular — have largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku.  Most never knew them to begin with.  I am sure that one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the actual practice of hokku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.

I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to the hokku than superficially meets the eye, how one must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how hokku works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.

Once one knows about and begins to understand the Yin-Yang principle, one sees it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time.   That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of hokku.

I should add that for the old writers of hokku, Yin and Yang were not a recipe for writing. They did not consciously think, “Now I must write a poem incorporating Yin and Yang in order to get a certain effect.”  Yin and Yang were just a part of their cultural and aesthetic background, so they did not have to consciously consider their interactions in writing, for the most part.  For us in the West, however, the interactions of Yin and Yang are not a part of our cultural background — at least not since a very long time — so the best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in old hokku.  That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your hokku practice — your personal background — but not in any forced and rigid way.

David

LE PRIMAVERA COMENCIA: SPRING BEGINS

Creder lo o non, le primavera ha comenciate.  Hodie es Candlemas, anque nominate Imbolc.  Le celo es azure e le sol brilla.

Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man f...

Onitsura scribeva:

Le alba;
Al puncto del folio de hordeo —
Gelo primaveral. 

Iste es un hokku del comenciamento de primavera.  Le frigido hibernal non ha evanescite in toto, ma remane in le matino.  Ma ora le energia yin se reduce, e le energia yang cresce.  Nos vide le energia yang in le alba e in le folio verde de hordeo, e nos vide le energia diminuende de yin in le gelo al puncto del folio, que tosto va disparer quando le sol ascende.

Iste hokku de Onitsura monstra ben como hokku exprime le natura de un saison del anno — aqui le primavera.

Nos vide tamben que le hokku es dividate in due partes:  un parte longe e un parte curte.  E le hokku tene un scena — le alba, un subjecto — le gelo, e un action — le remaner del gelo al puncto del folio de hordeo.

In le photo on vide le Homo Verde (le primavera — le energia yang del saison) qui lucta con Jack Frost (le gelo del hiberno — le energia yin).  Iste es un celebration anglese de Imbolc — del comenciamento del primavera.

David

Believe it or not, spring has begun.  Today is Candlemas, also called Imbolc.  The sky is blue, and the sun is shining.

Onitsura wrote:

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf —
Spring frost. 

This is a hokku of the beginning of spring.  The cold of winter has not vanished completely, but remains in the morning.  But now the yin energy diminishes and the yang energy increases.  We see the yang energy in the dawn, and in the green leaf of the barley, and we see the decreasing energy of yin in the frost on the tip of the leaf, which soon shall disappear when the sun rises.

This hokku of Onitsura shows well how hokku expresses the nature of a season of the year — here, the spring.

We see also that the hokku is divided into two partes:  a long part and a short part.  And the hokku has a setting — the dawn, a subject — the frost — and an action — the remaining of the frost on the tip of the barly.

In the photo one can see the Green Man (the spring — the yang energy of the season) fighting with Jack Frost (the frost of winter — the yin energy).  This is an English celebration of Imbolc — of the beginning of spring.

David


GROWING YANG IN ONITSURA

I have discussed this early spring hokku by Onitsura previously, but I would like to deepen what was already said a bit:

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

It is obvious that this is an early spring hokku from the frost on the barley.  It is like the weather where I am now — nights with temperatures dropping to the point of frost, but mornings that bring bright sunlight.

This poem is an excellent expression of beginning spring.  In fact if we were to put it more fully into English according to the principles of English-language hokku, we could rephrase it thus:

Dawn:
Frost on the tip
Of the barley leaf.

In English hokku we do not need the word “spring,” because each verse being marked with the season, we need not repeat it.

More important, however, is understanding how this verse works, and for this we go back to the fundamentals of hokku, the basic knowledge of the elements of Yin and Yang.

Cold — frost — is Yin, and it is representative of winter.  But the sprout of barley is young growth, which is growing Yang.  Also, the dawn — the beginning of the day — is growing Yang, which is overcoming the Yin of night.  So what we see in this verse is the first appearance of growing Yang both in the barley leaf and in the dawn, and the last lingering of Yin in the frost on the tip of the leaf that will soon be melted by the rising sun.  In short, this is all about growing Yang overcoming Yin, which is precisely what spring is.  And so this verse by Onitsura does precisely what it was intended to do — it manifests spring.

Compare such a verse, which is like a representation from the Book of Changes, with the mediocrity and self-centeredness of much of modern haiku, which has lost the spirit of old hokku and has forgotten the principles on which it was based.

It is important to remember, however, that when we read the hokku initially, we do not pause to analyze the elements; we just understand them instinctively, which is why the hokku is both simple and effective.  But it is important both for writers and for readers of hokku to understand WHY it is effective, thus the need for explanation.

David

SPRING BEGINS

It may seem odd to some readers that I have begun to write of Spring, but where I live that is what is happening.

Spring begins with the very weakest of Yang energies that melt snow and ice and sprout forth from the ground and from the enclosed buds of bare trees.  It is the change from the still and silent to the fluid and audible, as we can sense in this spring verse by Onitsura:

The waters of spring —
Seen here
And seen there.

Everything seems suddenly to be thawing, melting, and in motion trickles run out of the forest, across paths and into streams, little rivulets pool up an hollows and flow onward.

It may also seem odd to some readers that I include examples of verses by Shiki — the originator of the “haiku,” but as I have said many times before, much of what Shiki wrote was still hokku in all but the name he chose to give it.  He kept the connection with Nature and with the seasons.  I sometimes say that his verses tend to be “illustrations,” but that is very much in keeping with his theory of verse, which resulted in two-dimensional “paper” hokku at its worst, and pleasant if not deep verses at its best.  So we need not disdain what is good in Shiki simply because of what the world and his successors did to his “haiku,” which were generally just hokku.

The lake ice —
It is melted
By the ripples.

The little ripples of water created by wind and current lap against the constantly thinning edges of the remaining ice on the lake.  This is a verse of very early spring, and do not forget that both in Japan and in the ancient Western calendar of the British Isles, spring begins in early February.  So here we are seeing the gradual effect of the “yang” motion of the warming, moving water against the “yin” solidity and cold of the ice.

The snow —
Melted on one shoulder
Of the Great Buddha.

This is often the effect of sun and shadow.  Where the light strikes, the statue will warm and the snow will melt.  But it will linger on the shadow side — the Yin side, just as snow lingers in the Yin shadows of the forest floor, beneath trees with branches free of snow.

I hope it will be obvious to readers how very important the two elements of the universe — Yin and Yang — are in hokku.  Through hokku we see these two contrary forces in all stages of interaction.  But now, being at the very beginning of spring, Yin still predominates, though it must give way gradually to growing Yang.

Keep in mind all the internal harmonies of hokku involving Yin and Yang.  Beginning spring is Yang first manifesting, such as we see in the gestation to birth of a child.  In the day it is the time between midnight and the first paling of the horizon sky before sunrise.  In plants it is the first sign of the swelling and opening of buds, the very first shoots that appear above ground.  One could go on an on, but we have already seen in the verses used as examples here that it is also seen in the melting of the ice at the spring thaw, and the beginning of the “Yang” flow of the waters.

Of course ordinarily we think of water as a Yin element, and it generally is; but remember that Yang and Yin are always relative, always changing in reaction to one another, so even cold as it is, the flowing water of spring is more Yang than the very Yin state and solidity of ice and snow.

Spring begins.

MORE ON THE CHARACTERISTICS OF HOKKU

A reader has asked me to clarify a few points in this list (borrowed from R. H. Blyth) of the characteristics of hokku.  Though he asked about only three, perhaps it might be helpful to give some explanation of all, for those readers just beginning to learn about hokku:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

Comment:  Hokku has a relatively fixed form.  In English it consists of three lines, each line with an initial capital letter, and the whole fully punctuated.   It is separated into two parts (divided by appropriate punctuation), a longer part and a shorter part.  Further, it is set in a particular season.  But beyond this, hokku limits itself to subjects that do not trouble or disturb the mind, which is why it avoids topics such as war, violence, sex, and  romance.  These limits are willingly accepted by those who practice it, realizing that hokku (unlike modern haiku) is not whatever anyone wants it to be.  It has a definite purpose, and to achieve that, the limitations of hokku are seen as virtues rather than as undesirable boundaries.

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

Comment:  Hokku lays primary importance on experiences of the senses — taste, touch, hearing, smelling, seeing.  It avoids abandoning this concreteness for abstract “thinking,” for adding the comments and ornaments that are common to much of Western poetry.  In short, hokku are about experiencing, not thinking about an experience or analyzing it.

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

Comment:  Hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans in and as a part of Nature.  Nature is not treated unrealistically, nor is it used as a symbol or metaphor for something else.  The writer is always aware that Nature is a process of change — of constant impermanence –and that nothing can be permanently grasped or possessed.

4.  Lack of elegance.

Comment:  Hokku — unlike the old waka poetry of Japan — does not deal merely with subjects thought to be “high” and poetic; instead it shows us the poetry in ordinary things.  An excellent yet paradoxical example of this is Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming.

Here we have a simple flower blooming in a broken crock.  There is nothing “elegant” about the subject matter, in fact it is filled with a sense of poverty.  And though there is an elegance of simplicity in the way the subject is expressed, hokku avoids any materialistic elegance of status, of elevating “high” subjects above “low.”

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

Comment:  We have just seen an example of that in Onitsura’s verse.  The broken crock is obviously imperfect.  Imperfection is a characteristic of existence, and hokku is realistic.  It makes a virtue of such imperfections, seeing them as manifestations of the impermanence found throughout all Nature.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

Comment:  Those who have been reading here for some time know that hokku takes time to learn.  There are many helpful techniques and there are all the basic principles and underlying aesthetics.  And yet when the hokku is written, none of this should show.  The hokku should appear just as spontaneous and natural as a ripe pear falling from the branch, otherwise we are too aware of the writer and are distracted from the experience that hokku should convey.

7.  ”Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

Comment:  Poverty is very important in hokku and it means many things.  Essentially it is an appreciation of the simple things in life, the opposite of materialism.  In writing it means that we choose ordinary subjects, but present them seen in a new way.  It also means that in writing we limit ourselves to a certain amount of space, and to simple and ordinary words.  And it means that in hokku we are limited in how much we can say, and, as we have seen, there are limits too on the subject matter.  Hokku thus expresses the sense of the words “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” because it means that in accepting voluntarily such limitations, we avoid materialism and ego, preferring spiritual development.  This poverty is not seen as deprivation, but as the “empty cup” one must have so that something fresh and new may be poured into it.

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

Comment:  For Westerners, there is a vagueness built into hokku.  Because of its poverty, it never seems “finished” like a Western poem.  It seems to be saying more than is in it, but what that something is, is never clearly stated.  Instead it must be felt through having the experience of the hokku.  A hokku only gives us a part of the wider whole.  There is always something missing or hidden, because the poverty of hokku lets it only say and include just so much, and nothing beyond.  It is like an old Chinese painting in which we see a landscape with considerable portions hidden by mist.  Here is an example by Kyoroku:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

We always see the bright fronts of morning glory blossoms, but the wind of autumn blows them in such a way that we see the pale whitish reverse side.  We feel that there is a significance in this, but we cannot say what it is.  We are just to experience the verse, feel the autumn wind, see the pale “backs” of the morning glories, and have that feeling of unexplained significance — a mixture of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.  The verse is quite definite in what it shows us, but there is a vagueness underlying the whole that should not and cannot be clarified.  We see the indefinite through the definite.  There is more to a hokku than what it reveals, and yet what it shows us includes everything written and unwritten:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

9.  Human warmth.

Comment:  Because humans are seen as a part of Nature, the writer of hokku cannot help but see them as included in its impermanence.  Because of that, a compassion arises in the writer.  We know that human life is brief, and filled with sorrows and joys that both are temporary.  This compassion should not be “preachy” and obvious in hokku, but instead we should feel it behind a verse, like feeling the love of a mother pushing her child patiently in a swing — and it extends both to humans and to other creatures, as in this by Bunson:

The Harvest Moon;
In the dark places,
Insect cries.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

Comment:  Modern haiku enthusiasts often complain about the limits of hokku, saying that one should be able to use it for “protest verses,” for showing the horrors of war, for all kinds of purposes that really have nothing to do with what hokku is all about.  But hokku — particularly as I teach it — is a contemplative form of verse, meaning it should contribute to peace of mind rather than adding to the stress and worry of modern life.  Hokku shows us the peace behind all of life’s problems, and that is why in writing, it helps to have a peaceful mind.  Hokku is to take us beyond the continual emotional ups and downs and upheavals of life, to give us a little taste of what it means to live without an ego that is constantly fretting and desiring.  So in hokku there are limits to what one can or should do (you can see how this relates to all that has been previously discussed here).  The mind of the writer of hokku should be like a still pond in which the moon is reflected.  It cannot be so if stirred by fears and emotions.  And similarly, it should convey that sense of the peace underlying all the surface disturbances of life to the reader.  That is why we call it a form of contemplative verse — contemplative in the sense of peaceful and meditative, silent and free of ego and open to the experience of Nature.

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

Comment:  Hokku is a very spiritual kind of verse in that to write it, one must get the ego out of the way — if only temporarily — so that Nature may speak.  The writer should be like a clear mirror, free of the dust of emotions and desires.  When that mirror is wiped clean, Nature can be clearly reflected in it.  Unlike much Western poetry, in which the “poet” is considered important, in hokku the writer as “ego” is seen as an obstacle.  So the hokku writer must put the ego aside, and simply convey an experience of Nature, neither adding his thoughts and comments to it nor ornamenting it.  That of course includes omitting any obvious “preaching” about this or that, which is why when hokku talks about religion, it does so objectively.  One of the worst things a beginning writer of hokku can do is to write a lot of verses filled with obvious references to Zen or Buddhism or Christianity or meditation — filling them up with concepts about religion instead of with concrete experiences.  The spirituality of hokku lies in simply getting the ego out of the way.  That does not mean one cannot include any mention of religion, but that mention should be natural and never forced or “sermonizing” or obvious.  Issa, who sometimes failed in this, nonetheless gives us an example of a winter verse that is successful:

The Buddha in the fields;
An icicle hangs
From his nose.

Issa means, of course, an image of the Buddha.

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

Comment:  Hokku has little use for glory.  In hokku an orchid is not superior to a dandelion, nor is a beautiful young person preferable to one old and wrinkled.  In fact, given the choice, hokku will usually choose the ordinary over the extraordinary, the plain over the conventionally pretty.  In hokku a person with money has no greater value than a beggar in the streets.  In fact the latter is more likely to appear in hokku than the former.

Further, hokku tends to prefer one thing to many — a single flower instead of a huge bouquet, one person alone instead of a crowd.  That is why in old Japanese hokku, even though there is no indication of whether a subject is singular or plural, it is generally understood as singular.  One thing is felt to have more significance than many things.  Of course there are exceptions, but this is the general rule of thumb.

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

Comment:  Good taste in hokku is seen in the absence of things that disturb the mind, as well as in the absence of catering to mass taste.  It is seen in the poverty of hokku, as well as in its peaceful, contemplative atmosphere.  And it is seen in the writer’s selection of elements included in a verse, which nonetheless must appear natural and spontaneous, even if it took the writer weeks to get it “just right.”  Above all, good taste is seen in the selflessness of the writer, in his (or her) getting out of the way and allowing Nature to speak through a simple experience of the senses, set in the context of the seasons.  All of the principles of hokku contribute toward this sense of unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

Comment:  Hokku is not grand.  It is not loud.  It is not obtrusive.  It appears almost too brief to be worthwhile.  And yet it is in that very brevity and poverty and simplicity that we find the whole universe expressed in a falling leaf, in an ocean-smoothed pebble, in a crow on a withered branch at evening.  Where much of Western poetry is “in your face” and advancing, hokku is quiet and retiring, like Wordsworth’s “violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye.”   Because it does not try to be “all things to all men,” it is easily overlooked and undervalued, like a still, small voice.  But those of you who recognize the biblical allusion in that will know that its smallness does not mean it is to be underestimated.

And yet, as Blyth correctly says, hokku “is not much in little, but enough in little.”

To those in modern haiku, the poverty of hokku and its voluntary willingness to limit itself was never enough.  But that is the way of materialism, never to be satisfied, never to pause to realize that “enough” can be of greater value, ultimately, than “much.”  Haiku is always looking for more, always wanting something new and different and more modern.  Hokku, however, is quite satisfied with its own poverty and simplicity, making a virtue of the very things that for others are defects.

I hope these brief explanations help to give a better understanding of characteristics of hokku.  It is important to realize that these are not applied in practice like ingredients in a recipe — a pinch of poverty, a teaspoon of human warmth — but are rather to be regarded as overall characteristics, part of the “atmosphere” and aesthetics of hokku that give it is distinctive nature.

David

WORKING WITH PATTERNS

In studying contemplative hokku, a very good way to begin learning is by using patterns.

Patterns are hokku “frameworks” that we can use for writing countless new hokku.  By using them we learn the feel of the hokku form, and by changing the elements of a pattern we learn gradually to write original verses.

One of the most common patterns in hokku is the “standard” pattern, which consists of setting, subject and action.  For example, Shiki wrote:

A summer shower;
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We can easily use that as a pattern, replacing adjectives and nouns and verbs, etc.,  to make any number of new hokku.

Here is an article I wrote some time ago (you can see that I wrote it in autumn).  It shows how to use old hokku as patterns for learning to write new hokku:

Let’s begin by working with a slightly different pattern, a hokku by Gyōdai:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

And here is how one uses a hokku as a pattern for learning:

All parts of it can be changed, as long as one keeps the same basic form.

We can see that this is a standard hokku, meaning that it has a setting (the autumn hills) a subject (smoke) and an action (rises here and there).  These three elements need not be divided precisely line by line.  For example in this verse, the subject is found at the beginning of the third line, while the action is divided between the third line, where the verb is found, and the second line.

Do not worry about the order in which subject and action come, but rather just be sure there is a subject and an action.  We will keep the setting as the first line for this practice.

In the model verse, the setting is

The autumn hills;

That is an adjective followed by a noun.

We can change both the adjective and the noun.  We could make it:

The blue hills;
The distant hills;
The high mountain;
The deep forest;
The clear water;
The windy gorge;

And so on to infinity.

We can also change “the” at the beginning to “a” or “an.”

Because we are beginning autumn, whatever setting we choose as our adjective-verb  should relate to autumn (this changes according to the current season).  And we can make our start as easy as we wish at first, and then we can vary more and more elements as we gain experience.

As an example, we could use the same setting and only vary the subject and action:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Trees redden.

Now obviously that is rather mediocre, but in the beginning do not worry about making the “practice” hokku you write from patterns great hokku; improved content will come gradually.  Instead, focus on making the hokku fit the season and on following the pattern as you replace or vary elements within it.

We could also keep the same subject and action, and practice different first-line settings;

An old village;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Or

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Once we begin getting the feel of it, we can vary both setting and subject and action, and we can also work on improving content:

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Scarecrows lean.

Again, remember that we are not looking to rival great hokku in our beginning practice.  We are just learning, first, to use a model; second, to be in keeping with the season; and third, to practice our freedom in varying the elements of the model.

Now what is the point in all this?

Beginning hokku is like wearing a toolbelt with lots of empty pouches, but no tools.  Each model we practice puts a tool in a pouch of our belt.  And then when one actually has an experience in Nature, one can use this tool — this pattern — as a way to organize that experience.  The more patterns we learn, the more options we have for organizing.  And you will find that as you practice these basic patterns, they will readily come to mind when you do have an experience and want to write it down.

In working on these patterns, keep in mind that the setting is usually the wider context in which something happens.  It can be a place, the weather, the season — usually the BIG part of the hokku into which the subject and the action fit, like in the model.  The smoke rising here and there happens in the BIG setting of the autumn hills.

The subject — aside from the setting — is what the verse is “about,” in this case “smoke.”  And the action is something involving the subject that is moving or changing.  In this case the smoke “rises here and there.”

Now you have the first tool that fits in your hokku workbelt.  You only have to practice using it for it to become very practical and helpful.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this, or need help with some problem in your practice, feel free to ask me by posting a comment to the site (only I shall see it).  And feel free, if you wish, to show me your progress and ask advice as you need it.

It is very important that if you really want to learn hokku, you practice these patterns carefully, making your changes and replacement of elements as simple and gradual as you like.  Go at your own pace, without being lax.  Do not make things too hard for yourself at first.  But again, as you get more practice in replacing elements in the pattern, and begin to get the sense of how it works, you can replace more elements and make your variations more different.  And as you do that, you can also work on content, keeping in mind all that I discuss in other postings.  Gradually your hokku — even your practice hokku — will improve.

Do not do it just once or twice; keep making variations of all kinds on a pattern until doing so comes quite easily.  That will make it much easier, eventually, to write hokku from your own direct experiences.

How well learning from patterns works depends on how hard the student works, and how well the student can absorb and express the aesthetics and spirit of hokku.  I have talked about these aspects in other postings.

Working with patterns is a first step on the path of hokku.  Taking it is up to you.

There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best.  Here is one (out of season at present):

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have a range of options.  ”Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  ”ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct — never complicated or confusing.

Remember, however, that the hokku I present are not here merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.  But you may be surprised at what interesting verses you can write as you begin to use models — hokku patterns.

We can take today’s practice hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the English language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse, which I would translate as:

Even on the small island –
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which — following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century –began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.

I have mixed verses of different seasons in this posting — which can be done for educational purposes — but remember that when you do the pattern work, you should use replacements that put the verse in the PRESENT season, which now would be autumn.

David

SEEN IN THE SHALLOWS

Onitsura wrote this summer hokku:

Evening;
The bellies of trout seen
In the shallows.

This is a “standard” hokku, meaning it has setting, subject, and action.  The setting is the evening; the subject is the bellies of the trout; the action is “seen in the shallows.”  Of course the real action is the movement of the trout that shows their light underside.

This is a very “Yin” verse.  The evening is yin, the shallows are yin, the light bellies of the trout are a yin “color.”  The weaker Yang element is in the remaining light of day and in the movement of the fish.

David

A COOL WIND: OBJECTIVITY IN HOKKU

In my last posting, I discussed the distinction between subjective and objective hokku.  We can think of it this way:

An objective hokku is a thing-event.

A subjective hokku is generally a thing-event plus the “thinking” of the writer.

Shiki wrote:

Coolness;
Through the window of the stone lantern —
The sea.

There is just the coolness, the stone lantern, the sea.

However at another time Shiki wrote:

Coolness;
The defeat of the Heike
In the sound of the waves.

The Heike were an ancient clan defeated in a naval battle.  So what we see here is a bit of objectivity — “coolness” and “the sound of the waves” — but added to and overwhelming that is the subjectivity of Shiki’s historical allusion, his “coloring of the imagination” added when he “hears” the defeat of the Heike in the sound of the waves.  But what he hears comes not from the waves, but from his own imagination.  What he really hears is just the sound of waves.  But he did not let that be enough.  He has added “thinking” to the objective elements, and has made the verse subjective.

Now why is this distinction important, given that historically there were virtually always both subjective and objective hokku?  It is important because in the kind of hokku I teach, we prefer hokku without “thinking” because they give us the pure thing-event, with nothing added.

Subjective hokku are “poetical,” meaning “fancifully depicted or embellished.”  When Shiki adds the defeat of the Heike to the plain sound of the waves, he is adding his own imagination, his own fancy, and is embellishing the sound of the waves by adding that “coloring of the imagination” to them.

Subjective hokku are often very popular in the West, because as I wrote earlier, Western poetry is traditionally highly subjective.  In fact the degree to which Western poetry was and is subjective is rather astonishing when one begins to look for objectivity in traditional poetry.

We can say that in subjective verse, the writer has a “poetic” intent.  He cannot just give us the thing-event itself and let it be.  He has to add his own thoughts, his own view, his own interpretation.  Very rarely is Nature just allowed to be Nature, as Onitsura allows it to be in this objective hokku:

A cool wind;
The sky is filled
With the sound of pines.

In that verse there is no attempt to be “poetical,” no addition of the thinking of the writer.  There is only the cool wind, only the sound of the pines filling the sky.

Of course our preference for objectivity in hokku can be traced to the spiritual roots of hokku.  In the Bahiya Sutta we read,

“In the seen, there should be only the seen.  In the heard, there should be only the heard.”

So there is a very close connection between the preference for objective hokku here and the practice of a meditative, contemplative life.

David

SUBJECTIVE HOKKU, OBJECTIVE HOKKU

We earlier saw that there are basically two different kinds of hokku — subjective hokku and objective hokku.  Subjective hokku are those in which the writer adds his own view or interpretation, his “thinking.”  Objective hokku are those that simply present an experience and let the reader experience it too.

I teach objective hokku, because to me, it is the “purest” kind, very appropriate for a contemplative lifestyle.  Just as we should not add “thinking” to our meditation, we also do not add it to our hokku.

It is not difficult to recognize the other kind, subjective hokku, however.  We need look no farther than Bashō to find numerous examples, some very well known:

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

“Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the “thinking” addition.

Ill on a journey;
Dreams run about
The withered fields.

“Dreams run about the withered fields” is the added “thinking”

Art’s beginning —
The rice planting songs
Of the interior.

“Art’s beginning” is the added “thinking.”

Did it cry itself
Utterly away?
A cicada shell.

“Did it cry itself utterly away?” is the added “thinking.”

But we also find in Bashō some quite good examples of objective hokku — those without added “thinking”:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

On a withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Generally it is easy to recognize subjective hokku — hokku with “thinking” added.  But some are a bit tricky, for example, Chiyo-ni wrote:

The well bucket
Taken by the morning glory;
Borrowing water.

At first this would seem to be an objective verse, because Chiyo-ni is just stating “facts.”  But then we realize that the point of the verse is that she does not want to tear the morning glory vine away from the well bucket, and so she goes to borrow water from a neighbor.  That introduces a subjective element, and puts the writer of the verse front and center.  In hokku, however, we prefer that the writer get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  We do not want to know about Chiyo-ni’s delicate aesthetic sensibilities; we just want a sensory experience.

By contrast, here is a pleasantly objective verse by Chiyo-ni:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

Rankō has an objective hokku, though it has a longer time span:

Withered reeds —
Day after day breaking off,
Floating away.

And of course in Issa we have the very obvious “thinking” of:

This dewdrop world —
A dewdrop world it is,
And yet….

In Onitsura ‘s hokku we find objective examples such as:

Beneath
The leaping trout,
Clouds pass by.

But sometimes he is subjective, as in:

I have not yet
Taken off the Floating World;
The change of clothes.

The “floating world” is the “worldly” life.  “The change of clothes” signifies that time when one changes from cold-weather clothing to warm-weather clothing.  It is not difficult to see that “I have not yet taken off the Floating World” is Onitsura’s “thinking” addition, his added subjectivity.

In both reading and writing hokku, we should be increasingly able to recognize subjectivity, and to distinguish it from objectivity.  “Subjective” hokku are those people are likely to think of as more “poetic,” because people in the West are accustomed to subjective thinking in poetry.  But in hokku we look for sensory experience, and that requires greater aesthetic awareness to appreciate.  It demands more of reader and writer, because it offers us those experiences in which we perceive an unspoken significance, even though all we have is tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing — without added “thinking.”

David

ORDINARY AND EXTRAORDINARY HOKKU

Sooner or later (I hope sooner) in the study of hokku, one begins to ask just what makes an extraordinary hokku.  The question is inevitable because all of us, in our practice, are going to write lots of very ordinary hokku — pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable.  Here is a “summer” hokku as an example:

A clear morning;
Above the distant clouds
Blue mountains rise.

That is what I like to call a “block print” hokku.  It makes an attractive scene, like the landscape block prints of the Japanese artists Yoshida and Hasui, but there is nothing striking or memorable about it.

Why is that?  We can answer with what generally defines a good hokku — a good hokku shows us something seen in a new way.  That should be engraved on the memory of every student of hokku — something seen in a new way.

Though the example hokku is not unpleasing, there is really nothing new about it, no different perspective that allows us to see something freshly.  And that in essence is what makes the difference between an ordinary hokku and an extraordinary hokku.

As an example of something seen in a new way, here is a summer hokku by Onitsura:

Below
The leaping trout,
Clouds flowing.

This is another of those hokku requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, but such an intuitive leap in hokku should be easy, not difficult, and should happen split-second quickly.  Onitsura watches a trout leap out of the water, and in the water below the trout, passing clouds are reflected.

Such an unusual perspective often distinguishes extraordinary hokku from merely ordinary hokku.  Also note the sense of movement and change in Onitsura’s hokku, something we do not find in the “ordinary” example, where everything seems static and unmoving, just as in a block print.  Generally we avoid hokku in which nothing is moving or changing, though it does not hurt to write one now and then.  Movement adds energy to a hokku.  An exception, however, would be when we deliberately want to stress the lack of movement in a verse, which can happen occasionally.

Don’t fear to write ordinary hokku.  You may wish to create them to remember a particular time or for some other reason.  But be aware that what really makes hokku worthwhile is the good hokku, even the extraordinary hokku, and to write those we must see something in a new way, from a different perspective.  That different perspective need not be as obviously striking as in Onitsura’s example.

Over time we will write hokku that range from ordinary to better-than-ordinary to an occasional extraordinary verse.  All are part of learning.  But we should be able to tell the difference.  That is why in hokku we place such great emphasis on understanding its aesthetics and techniques.  If you do not know what makes a good hokku, an extraordinary hokku, how can you write them?  But learn the principles of hokku, and your discernment will improve.

David

ABOUT LINKED VERSE (OR NOT)

Readers may have noticed that even though I teach the old “haikai” kind of hokku, I nonetheless have very little to say about the practice of linked verse (renga).  That is because it has never interested me.  In fact there are very, very few whom it does still interest.

My personal opinion — and it is only that — is that hokku today are better written individually or in the context of a journal than in the old style of linked verse.  One might better work in a hokku series, joining a number of related hokku together.  It is much simpler, and for Westerners, I think, much more rewarding and appropriate.

There are ways of writing linked verse in English, though I advocate none that are complicated.  That enables one to still compose “group” verse, as the old writers of hokku enjoyed doing, but nonetheless I do not think that Westerners find such group verse particularly appropriate to their psychology.  We enjoy it about as little as we enjoy group authorship of a novel.  So my conclusion from all this is that if you like writing hokku with others in a linked verse form, feel free to do so; and if you do not, then you may write hokku in the context of a daily journal, or a travel journal, or as a series of related verses, or as individual verses.  That liberality enables us to keep up the wider practice of haikai, though it is by no means the complex and time-consuming matter it was in the time of Bashō.  But keep in mind that teaching complex linked verse to merchants and tradesmen, etc., was how Bashō made his living.  One would be hard put to make a living at such an occupation today!  My feeling is that it is probably just as well, because it avoids commercializing hokku — and not commercializing is more appropriate to the spiritual nature of the kind of hokku I teach.

My advice to the individual writer is to keep the traditions of the old hokku that are important to the preservation of its character, but when it comes to its context — the wider practice of haikai — fit that to your lifestyle and personal preferences.  If you are a social person, you may wish it to be a group activity; if you are more a solitary, you will prefer a more “one-person” context and practice.

It is worth keeping in mind that the old and complex linked verse has virtually died out.  Almost no one reads it today.  But people all over the world still read the hokku of Onitsura and Bashō and all the other related writers up to the end of the 19th century.

Onitsura once wrote of what is temporary in verse and what is ageless.  Hokku has something in it that is ageless.  That does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  In fact hokku today appeals only to those who realize the importance of Nature in our lives — that we HAVE no lives without Nature, of which we are a part.  But human cultures rise and fall.  Nature remains, however we may abuse it to our own detriment.

David

THE LARK ASCENDING: MORE WORK WITH MODELS

There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best:

Aomugi ya hibari ga agaru are sagaru
Green-barley ya skylark ga rising is descending

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have such a range of options.  “Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  “ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct.

Remember, however, that the hokku I translate here are not presented merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.

We can take today’s hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse:

Kojima ni mo   hatake utsunari    naku hibari
Little-island on even field tilling  crying skylark

I would translate it as:

Even on the small island —
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which, following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century, began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.

David

WORKING WITH MODELS

The very old practice of using models to learn hokku is, as I have mentioned earlier, also a very good one.  One should not think of it as simplistic or elementary, because if offers the opportunity to fix these models in one’s head and to understand how hokku works structurally, and ultimately aesthetically.

When working with models, we may disregard our usual habit of only reading hokku that are in season.  You may recall that the exception to that habit is in hokku used for teaching and learning.  So one may use a model from any season for practice in any other season.

In model work, we need not pay attention to the Japanese version of a hokku.  The Japanese language is structurally very different than English.  When learning hokku in English, it is important to work from English models.

In the study of models, we quickly find that there are several types of common hokku.  By learning these different types, we expand our range.  Because it is so frequent and useful, I like to begin with the “standard” hokku.

A standard hokku consists of a setting, a subject, and an action, not always in that order.  Here is a standard hokku by Uejima Onitsura, whom we commonly know as just Onitsura:

A cool wind;
Filling the sky —
The sound of pines.

Working with such a model is simply a matter of changing the various elements in it and substituting others.  We can change one or two or all of them, and each will give a different result.  Some changes will be effective, some will not.  By doing this, we learn how to combine elements in hokku, and we also learn the overall structure.

Onitsura’s hokku consists of these elements:

A cool wind; (setting)
Filling the sky —  (action)
The sound of pines. (subject)

Here is how one begins to work with a model through changing elements:

The spring morning: (setting)
Filling the forest — (action)
The sound of birds.  (subject)

It is easy to see that we have substituted other elements in the same structure.  We can go on doing this, using a wide range of topics:

The morning sky;
Filling the meadows —
The gold of poppies

One can easily see that the possibilities are infinite, which is why there are great numbers of hokku just of the “standard” kind alone.  And that is only one of several kinds of hokku.

One must not think this method too basic.  It is remarkably useful, and it enables the diligent student to quickly learn the basic forms of hokku.  When one adds to this the knowledge of the aesthetics of hokku, it provides an excellent grounding in the writing of original verses.

Any of the good hokku in the archives of this site may be used as models.  The more one works with them, the more one will expand one’s knowledge.  A teacher can show how to work, but only the student can do the learning through repeated practice.

If anyone has questions about this or about anything else, feel free to ask me by clicking on the “comment” button at the end of this or any other article.  Your question will be seen only by me, and I will reply to your email address.

David

THE OLD WAY OF LEARNING HOKKU

Those who have recently stumbled across my site might not understand what is happening here.  Some may think I am just presenting an archive of old hokku in new translations; others may think I am here to complain about modern haiku.

I do present old hokku here with my new translations; and I do bemoan what modern haiku did (and still continues to do, for the most part) to the old hokku tradition.  But my real purpose here is to teach hokku — to explain what it really is and how to write it.  I only talk about haiku now and then because to learn hokku, one must be able to distinguish it from haiku, which began much later and distorted the old hokku tradition.  And to learn hokku, one must correctly understand how old hokku were written, what their inherent aesthetics are, and the various techniques and principles employed.

I agree with Onitsura that the best way to learn hokku — and this is even more true of modern writers — is to imitate the models of one’s teacher.  I could just present my own verses and say, “do the same,” but I further believe that the best way to maintain continuity in hokku between the old tradition and our new practice is by using all the best old hokku as models.  Thus we learn not only from Onitsura, but also from Bashō and Gyōdai and Taigi and Buson and the other writers when they were at their best.

There are certain overall principles and aesthetics that apply to all of these writers and more, even though some may have had their own particular tendencies in writing.

The verses I translate here — those I present favorably — are really models for students to use in writing their own contemporary hokku.  This learning from the models of a teacher is the old way to learn hokku, and as I teach it, it is also the modern way to learn hokku because it is a very good way, as Onitsura recognized some three hundred years ago.

In the past few weeks I have spent considerable time in explaining what went wrong at the end of the 19th century, and how modern haiku pushed hokku into near oblivion.  It is important to know all of that, but now it is time to concentrate again on what this site is really about — the transmission and learning of hokku.  If hokku is to survive at all, there must be new writers.  Otherwise the tradition will disappear.

This site, then, is a place where I not only share my pleasure in traditional hokku but also a place where I teach others how to write it and encourage them to do so.
I have been doing this a long time now — quite a few years.  But given the fact that even the name of hokku nearly disappeared into oblivion, along with the knowledge of how to practice it, one must be patient in bringing it back to life.

The revival of hokku is particularly difficult in our modern materialistic society, which tends to turn away from the chief subject matter of hokku — Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, not apart from it.  And few there are today who admire the poverty, simplicity, and spirituality of the old hokku.   Nonetheless it is to those few that I address what I write here.

David

TAKING OFF THE WORLD

I have mentioned previously the simple, elegant — one might even say “clean” feeling one gets from the hokku of Onitsura.  It is unfortunate that he had no reliable students to carry on his kind of verse.  Because of that, people tend to think of Bashō as the “founder” of our kind of hokku.  But he was only one of two, and we should never forget Onitsura.

Regular readers here will know that there are different kinds of hokku.  There is the “standard” hokku that we use in beginning teaching, a very common kind consisting of a setting, a subject, and an action.  There are “question” hokku that leave the reader with an unanswered question.  There are “occasion” hokku that are written for a special occasion and have two completely different levels of meaning.  And there are other kinds, including the “statement” hokku.

A statement hokku, you may recall, is simply making a simple, non-controversial, factual statement about something.  That is what we find in the following hokku by Onitsura.  But before we look at that verse, we need to understand its subject.

As you know, in Japan there were fixed subjects for certain times of the year, and in old hokku (unlike modern hokku in English), these took the form of definite season words.  When one read a verse with such a word, one automatically knew the season in which it was written.  This was a helpful shortcut in the beginning and in a limited environment, but over time the system of season words became unwieldy and impractical, which is why today we simply mark each hokku written with its season.

The seasonal indicator in this hokku is the “change of clothes,” that time of year when one (in fact when everyone, in the old days in Japan) changed from the heavier cold weather clothing to the lighter clothing of warmer days.   This is traditionally considered a “summer” topic, but in many parts of the world (as in mine), it is more likely to be a topic for the latter part of spring.

Here is Onitsura’s “statement” hokku:

Ware wa made    ukiyo wo nugade    koromogae
I          wa still-not      floating-world wo remove  change-of-clothes

The “floating world” is the world of desires and illusions, meaning the everyday world in which we live.  It is also the world that is, like its pleasures, only temporary and transient.  In English we would call it the “material” life or the “worldly” life as opposed to a life of deeper spiritual understanding.

Onitsura, then, is taking stock of his life at this time of the year when one formally changes clothing.  And his conclusion is:

Not yet
Have I removed the floating world;
The change of clothes.

An English writer might put it this way:

Having not yet
Removed the garments of worldliness,
The change of clothes.

Or one could put it like this:

My worldliness
Still not removed;
The change of clothes.

One suspects that Onitsura, while being honest, was also a little hard on himself, because his verses tend to be far less “worldly” than those of other writers.

Onitsura, however, is simply and clearly recognizing the truth that was also seen by Henry David Thoreau in Walden:

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.  Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old….”

Onitsura recognized that at the time of the formal changing of clothes, it was far more important to be concerned with one’s “spiritual” clothing.  He knew that to judge a man by his outward appearance and not by the condition of his spirit was a very superficial judgment indeed.

But more important, Onitsura recognized that the condition of his “spiritual” clothes was his responsibility, and that merely changing his outward garments from heavy to light clothes was not the change that one really needs to make.

David


QUIET, STILL AND SURGING

I have always been very fond of the hokku of Onitsura, the other of the two “patriarchs” of our kind of hokku.  Onitsura’s verses have a very simple elegance, like that found in an old person who, however poor and mended his clothes, is always immaculately clean and mannered.  In Onitsura we do not find the kind of obsession with verse that we sometimes sense in Bashō, and it adds a quietness to them that is very pleasing:

Hana chitte   mata shizuka nari   Enjō-ji
Blossoms fallen  again quiet is     Enjō Temple

We can translate it as:

Blossoms fallen,
Again it is quiet;
Enjō Temple.

or as:

Quiet again,
With the blossoms all fallen;
Enjōji Temple.

The noisy, trampling crowds that came for the annual viewing of the cherry blossoms have departed.  With their leaving, everything has reverted to the stillness present before their coming.  It is a refreshing, peacefully pleasant quiet.

It has none of the dark and ghostly silence found in the last lines of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners“:

Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Those of you who pay attention to the Japanese transcriptions of the original verses that I sometimes give (and you need not pay them the slightest attention if you do not wish) may want to know that in words with a macron above a vowel — as in Enjō or Bashō, etc. — that vowel is to be pronounced twice as long. So the first is not simply Enjo, but rather En-jo-o, the second Ba-sho-o, not Basho.  It is not the difference between “long” and “short” vowels in English, but rather the amount of time taken to say the vowel, which is twice as long if the vowel has the macron.

I want to emphasize again, however, that one need not know a single Japanese word (except of course, hokku) to learn hokku, because we write in English here.  And of course how we write hokku in English is also applicable to other languages such as Spanish, German, Dutch, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, etc. etc. etc., which is probably why speakers of various languages read this site.

David

ENDING THE CONFUSION ABOUT HOKKU, HAIKU, AND ZEN

Here  — for convenience — I have combined several earlier articles explaining how Western haiku enthusiasts thoroughly confused hokku and haiku in the 20th century, completely misunderstanding not only hokku but its connection to “Zen,” and thoroughly misleading the public in the process by inaccurate and anachronistic use of terminology.  Unfortunately many in the modern haiku community continue to promote these fictions and misrepresentations even in the 21st century, and one must repeatedly correct their errors so that an unsuspecting public will not be taken in by them.  The originals of these articles will be found separately in the archives.

———————————————

Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that is well known to be a mistake among scholars.  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology.  Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from it spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences of which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, hokku could appear either as independent verses or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines. In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse divided into three lines.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of not always well-suppressed anger among writers of modern haiku.  Haiku forums on the Internet are notorious for bickering and viciousness.  There are many reasons for this.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde,revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread and far more recent haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use. Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte).

David

Yesterday I discussed the well-intentioned but rather futile effort of James W. Hackett to halt and reverse the “aesthetic devolution” of the modern haiku.  As readers here know, I do not teach or advocate haiku, so some explanation is necessary for even discussing it on a site devoted to the hokku.

The modern haiku community has from its inception confused the hokku with Shiki’s revisionist term “haiku.” But Bashō and Gyōdai, Buson and Issa did not write “haiku.”  They called what they wrote hokku, within the wider context of haikai, just as we do today.  That is an easily verifiable, historical fact.  And when hokku was tentatively introduced to the West, it was known here as hokku too, though it was misunderstood in Europe and America from its first appearance, and was mistakenly viewed in terms of Western notions of poets and poetry, quite contrary to its essential nature.

To confuse matters even more, hokku (as Japanese hokku in translation) was not really popularized in the West until the middle of the 20th century, at which time it became widely known through the works of Reginald Horace Blyth, and to a lesser extent those of Harold G. Henderson

Unfortunately, Blyth chose to ignore the correct term for the subject — hokku — and used instead the revisionist term then current in the Japan of the mid 1900s — “haiku.”  Henderson, a lesser light, followed Blyth’s lead.

This unfortunate choice has been the source of endless confusion and misunderstanding, because almost all of what Blyth wrote about in his monumental “Haiku” volumes (all six of them) was really hokku, not haiku.  But when Blyth first began writing, he assumed that the hokku was dead, that he was penning a kind of loving post-mortem.

But by the time he was finishing the last of these works years later, Blyth saw faint hints of a revival in, of all places, the English-speaking West, and it was his own writings that were largely responsible for this new interest, which he hastened to encourage.  But again Blyth made a serious mistake in not providing simple, straightforward, clear, detailed, and systematic guidance on how a hokku was to be written, practically and aesthetically.  Instead, though he provided a treasure in his commentaries, he left far to much up to a reading public too impatient and unprepared to take advantage of Blyth’s unsystematic if penetrating presentation of the matter.

Harold Henderson made the same disastrous mistake, suggesting that it would be the “poets” themselves who would decide how the “haiku” (by which Henderson, like Blyth, really meant the hokku) would be written in English.  Both Blyth and Henderson failed to realize that Westerners were totally unprepared for the task, having virtually no understanding of hokku aesthetics and how they were to be applied in verse.

Inevitably, Westerners projected their own misperceptions of the hokku onto the Western haiku, and thus mischief was immediately afoot and all the better efforts of Blyth and Henderson came to naught as Westerners promptly set themselves to remaking the hokku in their own images as the English-language “haiku.”

Thus, virtually at the beginning of the Western haiku movement, the damage of misuse of terminology had already been done, so the movement that began in the West in Blyth’s time was indeed a “haiku” movement, not a hokku movement.  And its aesthetics were Western self-made “haiku” aesthetics, based on Western poetic conventions, not on those of the hokku.

It seems odd now that neither Blyth nor Henderson recognized sufficiently that those who had become interested in writing “haiku” really had not the slightest idea how to go about it, and that letting such individuals set the future course of the verse form was just as illogical as making a child newly arrived on a ship its captain.

Western novices compounded the problem by virtually ignoring Blyth’s illuminating commentaries, and instead of remedying that deficiency by systematically studying old hokku to determine its form and aesthetics, they began plunging recklessly and headlong into writing a new kind of verse based not on hokku but on their personal misunderstandings and misperceptions of hokku, calling it “haiku.” The results, generally, were astonishing in their mediocrity.  But really, what else could one expect?

That is the beginning of the Western haiku movement in a nutshell.  And those setting the course of the Western haiku movement generally chose to ignore Blyth and to ignore Henderson’s warnings and cautions, preferring to go their own various ways, remolding the hokku to fit what they thought their new “haiku” in English should be, and endlessly confusing the general public in the process by misapplication of terminology and misinterpretation of hokku aesthetics and form.

All of this is merely a lead-in to some further words on James W. Hackett. Yesterday I wrote that Hackett’s efforts to turn back time to a fictional “golden age” of Western haiku are likely to have no impact at all on the modern haiku community because that community will, as a whole, consider Hackett merely antiquated in his views, a human telegraph lingering on in the cell phone age, bypassed by time and events.    I pointed out that haiku in the West never had a golden age, because it was distorted from its very beginnings. That needs a further bit of explanation.

If the West had paid close and studious attention to the works of R. H. Blyth, it would have been possible for a Western hokku to quickly arise, even if mislabeled “haiku.”  But as we have seen, those who set the course of the Western haiku movement by writing books and journals and founding societies paid virtually no attention to Blyth’s aesthetic commentaries on hokku; instead they created a new Western verse form under the name “haiku.”

Those reading editions of such influential works as The Haiku Anthology by Cor van den Heuvel, which began appearing in the early 1970s, will see that this sleep of reason brought forth monsters.  Even in the beginning, Western haiku diverged not only from hokku but even from the very conservative “haiku” written and advocated in Japan by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  But then van den Heuvel was involved with the Haiku Society of America, which in my view bears heavy responsibility for leading haiku off on erratic and subjective paths that took it quickly away both from the hokku and from the “Shiki-style” haiku, furthering the “aesthetic devolution” lamented by Hackett.

But back to Hackett.  It should not be surprising that devotees of modern haiku view him as spider-webby, dusty, and outmoded.  He did, after all, correspond with R. H. Blyth, which means he got his start at the very beginning of the popularization of  haiku in the West in the middle of the 20th century.  And even though Blyth himself gave Hackett a rather double-edged compliment, calling his early verses “excellent” while simultaneously writing that “more often there is too much ostensive, that is, overt thought” in them (History of Haiku, vol. 2, pg 362), nonetheless that mention of Hackett by Blyth himself (along with inclusion of a few of Hackett’s verses, which became separately available in print in the West) puts Hackett in the category of the three first founders of Western haiku.

Unfortunately it is not a happy society, because few have been so historically noted and so little heeded as the triumvirate of Blyth, Henderson, and on a secondary level, Hackett (a fourth contributor, Kenneth Yasuda, made little impression though his uninspired works still survive).

My own view of Hackett’s “haiku” is that (as Blyth himself admitted with his backhanded compliment), Hackett did not quite get the aesthetics of the hokku.  Hackett was impressed with the “Zen” aspect of the hokku, but unfortunately this sometimes resulted in verses tainted too heavily with mid-20th century Western romanticization of Zen — a little like biscuits with too much baking powder, in which the effect should be there, but not the obvious taste.  And, as Blyth wrote, Hackett’s verses all too often have too much subjective intellectualization, too much “thinking” in them.

But really, that is the worst one can legitimately say of Hackett.  When one reads his essay bemoaning what haiku has become, one sees that if readers in the modern haiku community were to follow the more sensible of his suggestions, haiku would be reformed for the better, at least as far as its relation to the hokku.

That is not, however, going to happen.  Haiku was created in the West as a self-evolving kind of verse dependent on the whim of the individual writer for its form and standards, and Western writers — heavily invested in the poet as public ego — are not about to give that up for a nostalgic view of a past that never was, simply because it is presented to them by someone who wrote letters to Blyth over half a century ago.

In fact the modern haiku community as a whole has so little respect for Blyth at present that even its leading pundits (or “misleading pundits” as they would better be called in my view) regularly enjoy stabbing a dagger into Blyth’s memory now and then, attempting to lift themselves by denigrating him.

It should be obvious, then, that I see Hackett’s attempt to reform haiku as futile, though not misguided.  Haiku is not hokku.  Haiku never was hokku, except perhaps in its earliest days in Japan when Shiki wrote his own brand of hokku and simply mislabeled it “haiku.”

But in the West — in English and in other European languages — haiku has always been a confused mess because people simply did not pay attention to what Blyth told them over and over again. Instead, they preferred to remake it in their own image, following the popular Western notion of the poet as rebel and revolutionary.

Haiku as a whole follows in the same pattern today, and instead of attempting to change it back into something closer to the hokku, one must simply let it go on changing and evolving, though the tendency at present seems to be for it to evolve itself into sterility and ultimate extinction as anything other than a simplistic form of satirical verse.

All of which, fortunately, has not the slightest effect on our practice of the hokku as a continuation in the modern world of the old hokku tradition of Japan.  Hokku never devolved precisely because it maintains the essentials of the aesthetics and principles and techniques of the old hokku, though presenting them in modern language to the modern world.

The student of hokku, happily, is not faced with the subjective chaos and fragmentation so obvious in modern haiku.  But then hokku and haiku have gone their separate ways, and have today quite different approaches both to aesthetics and to life.

One cannot, therefore, say that James Hackett is wrong in wanting to return haiku to an aesthetic closer to his own, but one can be reasonably certain it is never going to happen.  Fortunately, for those who do not want to be taken on the wild, ego-stimulating, argumentative ride of modern haiku societies and journals and Internet forums, there is still the peace, tranquility, and closeness to Nature of the hokku, ever old, ever new.

It will be obvious to the reader that I have a very low general opinion of modern haiku.  Nonetheless, I feel one should accept reality, realizing that it exists as a new category of Western verse created in the 20th century, and one should admit that it has an appeal for most Westerners that hokku simply does not have.

That is because the goals of modern Western society are in general so remote from the Nature-centered, spiritual goals of the hokku that most people have no attraction to the kind of verses written by Onitsura and Bashō.  Like Blyth, and no doubt like Hackett, I see this as a serious flaw in modern society, something to be lamented instead of celebrated.  It is symptomatic of the serious sickness of spirit that plagues modern culture the world over.

That is why I hold with Blyth that in our present-day world, the Way of Hokku is a “hard way and a narrow way, and few there be that find it.”  But that is only because few there be that want to find it.

Let no one think I am criticizing James W. Hackett here.  I think the modern haiku community would vastly better itself by heeding his Jeremiad.  I may disagree with some details of his reform program for haiku, yet I applaud his overall intention.  But I also feel quite certain that nothing is going to happen as a result of his efforts — that he will be, like Blyth and Henderson, virtually ignored by the majority of the Western haiku community.  Hokku and haiku are likely to remain two quite different and separate and ever more widely diverging kinds of verse.

Rather than wasting time on trying to reverse history, it is better just to live a life of hokku and to let others do what they wish, which they always have done in any case and will continue to do.  Ultimately, one changes the world only by changing one’s self.

David

Over the years I have written about how hokku was hijacked in the middle of the 20th century by the haiku movement in the West.  One could write a sizable volume on the history of how that took place and which prominent names in 20th century (and some 21st) haiku were involved.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong in the appearance of a new verse form.  But one can and should legitimately object when a new verse form is misrepresented to the public as a continuation of an old verse form, which is precisely what the self-made pundits of modern haiku undertook from the 1960s onward. It is only recently that the public has begun to catch on to the fact that they have been had, that they are the victims of revisionism — that modern haiku is not a continuation of the old hokku as written by Taigi and Bashō and Onitsura and all the rest; instead it is a new verse form created out of the misperceiving and misrepresentation of hokku by writers in the 20th century.

Admittedly the public at large could hardly care less about all this, because numerically few are interested in modern haiku and even fewer in genuine hokku.  But for those of us who do care, it is very important to call attention to those writers in the 21st century who persist, for whatever reason, in inaccurately labelling old hokku as “haiku” and who continue to promulgate the fiction that what they are teaching continues the tradition of the old writers of hokku.

If one wants to learn modern haiku, one is perfectly free to pick up hints and tips from any number of books and Internet fora and blogs.  The range is vast, and the standards so loose and flexible that one can write virtually anything one wishes and present it to the world as haiku as long as it is reasonably brief.

Hokku is quite a different matter.  Hokku has very definite principles and standards, and if one wishes to learn how to write it, one must thoroughly understand the aesthetics and construction of the old hokku written from the 16th to the 20th centuries.  It is not complicated, but it does involve a thorough re-thinking of one’s notions, a dropping of a great deal of inaccurate and unnecessary baggage picked up over the years from the misrepresentation of hokku as “haiku” by authors from the mid-20th century onward.

It requires  a re-orientation (no pun intended) of the writer toward a verse form that takes one away from the self and into Nature, a form that pays little heed to the ego of the writer or to what is commonly known as “self-expression.”  I sometimes begin introducing people to hokku by articles with titles such as “Hokku is Not What You Think it Is,” and that is quite true.  Most people really have no idea at all what hokku is, and that is not surprising after half a century of misperception and misrepresentation of it by propagandistic enthusiasts of modern haiku.

So what is hokku?  Read the articles in the archive on this site and you will begin to get a much clearer and more accurate picture than you have likely ever had from reading misinformation about it in books that incorrectly and anachronistically misrepresent it as “haiku.”

David

In previous postings I have written that the haiku did not exist until near the end of the 19th century, when it was “created” by a Japanese failed novelist, the journalist generally known today as Masaoka Shiki, or simply Shiki.  That is an historical fact, and easily verifiable by anyone willing to expend a minimum of effort in research.  Though the word “haiku” existed in Japanese long before Shiki, it had a different meaning than he attached to it.

What that means is that everyone — whether in books or magazines or on the Internet — who talks about the “haiku” of Bashō or the “haiku” of Buson or the “haiku” of Taigi is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically, spreading the misunderstanding and confusion that began in English and other European languages in the 20th century — particularly in the mid-20th century, when the foundational groups that gave rise to modern haiku were being formed.

As I have mentioned before, it is noteworthy that one such group — the Haiku Society of America — even put out a considerable propaganda effort to convince the editors of dictionaries and other reference works to declare the term hokku “obsolete,” as though a mere handful of people forming a little club could invalidate history, making Bashō somehow a writer of “haiku” when, by contrast, Bashō always referred to what he wrote as HOKKU, within the wider context of haikai.

But I have said all that before.  What the average person needs to know now is what that change in terminology — begun by the revisionism of Shiki in Japan — means about hokku today and its relationship — if any — to haiku.

To understand that, we have to go back to the time of Shiki to see just what he did, and what resulted from what he did.  In doing so we shall dispel a bit of myth and shall remain with the facts.

What did Shiki do to hokku?  Very little, actually, but that very little was to have immense consequences.  What he did was precisely this:

1.  Shiki removed hokku from its centuries-long position as the first and opening verse of a haikai verse sequence.  He did this because he did not personally consider such collaborative verses “literature.”

2.  Shiki decided to call this independent verse form “haiku,” not “hokku.”

That’s it.

Looked at objectively, Shiki really only made only one and one-half rather than two major changes, because hokku appearing independently were nothing remotely new, but really a very old practice.  In the old haikai, hokku could appear in at least three ways:  As part of a haikai sequence, independently, or embedded in other writings such as the travel journals of Bashō.  So to say that Shiki began the practice of presenting the hokku independently is simply an error.  What we can say is that Shiki began presenting the hokku independently under his new denomination “haiku.”

We are really left with only one major thing that Shiki did.  He made it impossible for the haiku to be written in the context of a linked verse (renga) sequence.

If we look at Shiki’s own “haiku,” we find that what he really did was just to take the hokku — which already could appear independently — and rename it “haiku” for his own purposes.  Shiki’s verses are generally acceptable as hokku, which shows how little he really did and how essentially conservative his verses were.

Shiki kept the connection with Nature — essential to hokku.  He also kept the connection with the seasons — also essential to hokku.

We can say, then, that what Shiki did was simply to initiate a trend of confusion that has continued up to the present.

It is true that when compared to older hokku, Shiki’s “haiku” are often shallow, and there is a particular reason for that, in fact two main reasons.  First, Shiki was an agnostic.  Old hokku was very influenced by the “philosophy” of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly that of the Zen sect.  That is not surprising.  Zen aesthetics are the basis of all the major traditional contemplative arts in Japan, whether hokku, the tea ceremony, gardening, flower arranging, calligraphy, even the Nō drama.  That is why if one understands the aesthetic principles behind just one of these arts, one understands them all.

In Shiki’s case, his agnosticism tended to manifest itself as a certain existential bleakness, which we find particularly in verses directly relating to his chronic illness.  Seen over the longer term, however, his agnosticism led eventually to a separation between “haiku” and spirituality, something we find emphasized in later 20th-century writers in English who declare either that there is no Zen-“haiku” connection or  that such a connection is overrated or overstated.  One often finds such writers quoting this or that modern Japanese, who when asked about the connection between “Zen” and haiku, simply look puzzled or say there is no connection.  What does one expect them to say?  Most modern Japanese know as little about the aesthetic foundations of the old hokku as modern Americans know about the influence of the Enlightenment on the founding documents of the United States.

But the fact is that it was modern haiku that decided to separate from “Zen,” for reasons best known to those who made that decision.  Of course by “Zen” here, I mean non-dogmatic, unitary spirituality in general, and particularly the aesthetic influence of that spirituality that manifested in hokku.

The result, then, is that there is a large segment of modern haiku that has separated and isolated itself from spirituality.  That is a notable difference from the old hokku, in which its aesthetics were a manifestation of the underlying foundation of Mayahana Buddhism, including as well Daoist, Confucianist, and even a bit of animism.

There is a second and not unrelated reason for the shallowness of many of Shiki’s hokku.  Shiki was strongly influenced by the Western literary and technological innovations that were flooding into Japan in his time.  One of these was the plein-air art of Europe, nature sketches “from life,” so to speak.  It made such a great impression on him that he took it as the guiding motif for the new “haiku,” and called it shasei, sketching from life.

The result was that many of Shiki’s “haiku” are essentially illustrations in words, brief word-sketches of this or that scene.  As such, they tend to be merely two-dimensional, and lack the depth and profundity of the old hokku, which had a wider aesthetic.  I often say that many of Shiki’s hokku are like the style of block prints made popular by such Japanese artists as Yoshida and Hasui — pleasant enough in their own way, but still illustrations.

In spite of that, if his changes had not been taken farther by those who came after him, we would still consider much of what Shiki wrote to be hokku — shallow and illustrative hokku on the whole perhaps, but still not radical enough to remove him entirely from the category.  We would see him as just another writer of hokku, but with a peculiar personal aesthetic.

That brings us to Shiki’s real significance in this matter.  Shiki questioned the old hokku tradition and its values, but aside from imposing his own title “haiku” on it, he remained, as we have seen, rather conservative.  But the mere fact that he felt enabled, as an individual, to take control of the hokku tradition and to bend it to his personal will, nonetheless implied the right of the individual to change hokku however one wished, and given that this occurred in a period of great cultural change in Japan, its effects were tremendous. Shiki was not even dead before one of his students — Hekigodō — asserted his own right to change the new haiku even more, and he continued until his verses were so radical and different that they had very little to do with the old hokku.  As haiku developed it became acceptable to drop the connection with the seasons, with Nature, and for all practical purposes, haiku became a new and different verse form, which is what it remains in most cases today.

Not surprisingly, what Westerners took from all this was that anyone could write “haiku” any way they wished.  That is still the creed of most modern haiku enthusiasts today.  And so haiku has become whatever anyone wants it to be.  As I have said before, something that becomes anything becomes in essence nothing at all.   That is why haiku today is impossible to clearly define.  It is simply too varied and fragmented, and it continues to vary and to fragment.  That also is one of the chief reasons why the modern haiku community is so filled with bickering and dissension.

It is not surprising that this is what has become of haiku, because in the modern West, “poetry” is seen as a form of self-expression — often of rebellion — which is why “haiku” was taken up by the “Beat Generation” in the 20th century.  Of course by then it was already confused with the old hokku, and people simply could not tell the difference because they had never properly learned or understood the aesthetics of the old hokku.  When someone told them that “haiku” was what Bashō and the other old masters of Japan wrote, they simply and naïvely accepted that.

It is very important to recognize that the hokku was fundamentally misunderstood and misperceived from its very first appearance in the West in the 19th century.  The early Western poets — the Imagists among them — simply saw in the hokku a reflection of their misperceptions both of Asian culture and of its literature.  Because hokku was an aesthetic blank for them, when they looked at it, it was like looking in a mirror; they saw their own faces — their own ideas about poets and poetry and the mysterious East — staring back at them.

That fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of hokku has been perpetuated in the modern haiku community right up to the present.  In fact as I have said before, so pervasive were the misconceptions about the history and nature of hokku that when I first began teaching that Bashō wrote hokku, not “haiku,” the reaction of the modern haiku community in general was first disbelief, then anger.  One would have thought the anger would have been directed at those who had so misled them.  But there are still no doubt those in modern haiku who cannot forgive me for pointing out that they are not successors of Bashō, and that what they had picked up from the writings of 20th-century haiku pundits had more to do with the personal preferences of those self-made “authorities” than with anything practiced prior to the 20th century.

Today — at least — people in modern haiku are at last beginning to get the message that Bashō did not write haiku, nor did all the others before Shiki.  And they are beginning to realize that what most of them are writing stems more from American and European experimentation and ideas in the latter half of the 20th century than it does with old hokku or even the haiku of Shiki.

Once people begin to realize that “haiku” is an inaccurate and anachronistic and mistaken term when applied to the hokku tradition, and once they begin to realize that what nearly all the haiku teachers and authorities of the 20th century were teaching had little to do with Bashō and the entire old hokku tradition, then they can begin to see things realistically.  They can begin to learn what hokku really is, as opposed to its ersatz form, modern haiku.

Seen realistically, the modern haiku tradition in general has virtually nothing to do with all that was written prior to Shiki, or even — as we have seen — with what was written as “haiku” by Shiki himself.  Any verse form that abandons Nature, that abandons the connection with the seasons, that abandons the essentials and aesthetics of the old hokku,  is neither hokku nor even is it what Shiki meant by “haiku” when he brought it into being near the beginning of the 20th century.  Instead, modern haiku is for the most part a new Western brief verse form with remarkably fluid boundaries, and should be recognized as such.  The notion that it has anything to do do with Bashō or haikai or hokku  other than as an offshoot created through misunderstanding and misperception of the original will finally be recognized.

I must, however, add one disclaimer.  There are a few individuals in modern haiku today that do maintain some relation to the old hokku, if not in name.  Generally these are people who, though writing haiku, have been particularly influenced by pre-Shiki hokku.  Some, influenced by Japanese haiku of the 20th century, follow aesthetics not quite those of the old hokku — there may be too much intellection or striving for “poetic” effect — and their verses tend to be like the conservative haiku style of the 20th-century Japanese haiku writer Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959).  In many cases, these individuals are still worlds away from much that is written as modern haiku, and are sometimes more akin to the conservative haiku of Shiki — thus removed from, but not as isolated from the old hokku as, modern haiku in general.

As for the rest, it is as I have said.  Modern haiku has in general virtually nothing in common with the old hokku but brevity, and sometimes not even that.

Now what is the point in saying all this?  Is it perhaps just to irritate modern haiku enthusiasts?  Not at all.  The reason I take the time to write this — apart from historical accuracy — is simply that in order to learn hokku, one must distinguish it from haiku.  Hokku is something quite different, with its own aesthetics, techniques, and principles.  These are impossible to learn if one is constantly mistaking it for haiku.

Once it is understood and recognized that hokku and haiku are generally two different things, individuals may then choose to write either or neither.  But at least they will be making a more informed decision than those who have never learned to distinguish the two.

David

Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

Haiku today — as distinct from hokku — is another matter.  There are some Zen-influenced writers of haiku, but in general modern haiku is completely removed from Zen, and in fact some writers and figures in the modern haiku community actually prefer that it be divorced completely from Zen and any kind of spirituality.  In this they differ radically from present day adherents of the hokku tradition, who regard non-dogmatic spirituality as inseparable from hokku.  Modern writers of hokku thus maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began — to Zen as meditative absorption.  That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.

David

Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself, he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called “haikai” renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of our hokku.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing our kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live by its standards, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence, and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet in about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had distorted and perverted its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and it is that which gives it its particular clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.

David

MORNING FROST AND MELTING SNOW

Is is unfortunate that Onitsura had no students to carry on his approach to hokku, which was really quite good.  But Bashō was the one with all the followers, so he is the one remembered, though Onitsura was writing in the same period and is along with Bashō a co-patriarch of our kind of hokku.  Onitsura’s verses often have a kind of spare and aesthetic elegance, like this:

Akebono ya   mugi no hazue no   haru no shimo
Dawn      ya   barley ‘s  leaf-tip  ‘s spring ‘s frost

Dawn;
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

That is Onitsura’s austere way of sharing with us the period of seasonal transition when the last traces of the cold winter must give way to spring.

I keep repeating the principle of reflection in hokku, because it is so important to hokku aesthetics.  Remember that hokku use different techniques; they sometimes combine things that are similar, at other times things that are different.  In this hokku we have a mixture.

“Dawn” reflects the time of year, which is spring.  Spring is the beginning of the year just as dawn is the beginning of day.  So in this verse we see spring reflected in the dawn, and dawn reflected in the spring.  Both have a feeling of freshness and youth and newness.  But we also find the contrast between the “growing yang” dawn (reflected in “spring”) and the cold yin frost on the leaf of the barley.  This shows us directly the interplay between the forces of Yin and Yang in Nature.  Early spring is a time when those two forces seem to contend for dominance, but being a spring verse, we know which will win, because spring means growing yang and diminishing yin, just as dawn means the same.

So again, we see in this verse both the principle of reflection and the principle of contrast.  Someone who understands reflection will not mistake it for metaphor in hokku, something done all too often by Western writers and readers of modern haiku who have never learned the aesthetic principles and techniques of hokku.

Regular readers here know that I often caution novices about Issa.  Some of his verses are good, others too personal and reflective of the psychological wounds of his childhood.  Westerners usually flock to his “cute” verses like flies to honey, and have to be taught to appreciate those that are deeper in order to overcome that defect.

In any case, here is a spring hokku by him:

Yuki tokete   mura ip-pai no kodomo kana
Snow melted  village one-cup ‘s children kana

Snow having melted,
The village is filled
With children.

The Japanese original says the village is ip-pai with children.  Ip-pai means literally one cup, but here we are to take it in its secondary sense of something filled to the brim, or even filled to overflowing, like a cup of tea.

Henderson actually gives a quite good translation into English by saying the village is “overflowing” with children.

In any case, what we are to understand is that the snow has just melted (yin becoming yang) and this event is reflected in the fact that suddenly the village seems full of active children (also yang replacing yin). To say the melting snow that fills the village with running pools and puddles also fills it with running children is perhaps to explain too much, but really that is the sense we are to get from it.

So again we see the movement from the yin of winter to the growing yang of early spring presented through use of certain elements that have these qualities.  And just as spring is the beginning of the year, children are the beginning of life.  But always keep in mind that in hokku this is reflection (we can be more formal and call it “internal reflection”), not metaphor.

Issa also wrote another hokku of very early spring, touched with his characteristic quirky “psychological” approach:

Korekiri to   miete dossari   haru no yuki
That’s-it to looked very-much  spring ‘s snow

That appeared
To be all of it!
The big spring snowfall.

Korekiri (kore-giri) means “that’s all,” “that’s it.” Dossari means a “great deal” of something, a “big amount.”

This is Issa’s brand of humor.  In this verse we are right on the edge of ending winter and beginning spring, though obviously just across the spring boundary of the lunar calendar.   And there has been a sudden, huge snowfall.  Seeing that, Issa says, “Well that looks like all of it now!” meaning that the winter has ended in one last big snowfall that used up all remaining in the season, and spring begins.

Issa’s last hokku is light-hearted and humorous and child-like in reflecting the winter-spring transition, but Onitsura’s is more perceptive and deep.  Each has its place in hokku.  Yet if one goes no deeper than Issa’s approach, one will miss a lot.

David

HOKKU IS NOT HAIKU, AND VICE-VERSA

Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that is well known to be a mistake among scholars.  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology.  Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from it spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences of which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, hokku could appear either as independent verses or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines.  In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of not always well-suppressed anger among writers of modern haiku.  Haiku forums on the Internet are notorious for bickering and viciousness.  There are many reasons for this.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde, revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread new haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use.  Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte).

David

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT JAPANESE HOKKU WAS LIKE….

By chance I flipped open a book to the Japanese original of a hokku by Onitsura, one of the two “patriarchs” of our kind of hokku.  Though it is out of season, it gives me a good opportunity to show you exactly what old hokku were like, and how they are translated into English-language hokku form.  An old hokku would have been printed vertically, like this:

鶯      Uguisu   nightingale / bush warbler  (Chinese character)

や     ya           (cutting word — Japanese phonetic hiragana symbol)

梅    ume         plum  (Chinese character)

に   ni             on, at  (Japanese hiragana)

と    to-           (hiragana)

ま    ma-         (hiragana)

る    ru –         tomaru = perch, stop (hiragana)

は    wa (ha) subject marker (hiragana)

昔    mukashi  ancient, past  (Chinese character)

か    ka –  (hiragana)

ら    ra –   kara from (hiragana)

    Let’s put it in horizontal form for convenience.
    鶯 梅 に とまるは 昔 か ら
    Uguisu ya ume ni tomaru wa mukashi kara
    literally,
    Nightingale ya plum on perch wa ancient from
    When a Japanese writer presented a noun followed by the cutting word ya (as here with uguisu ya), he was giving almost precisely the effect we get by writing in English
    The nightingale —
    In other words, he says, “Here is the nightingale; take a moment to experience it before we move on.”  Notice how perfectly the dash does in English what the cutting word does in Japanese.  Depending on the nature of the individual verse, we might also want to express the pause with a more definite and less connective semicolon (;).
    Having given us the setting, which here is the shorter part of the two parts of a hokku, he then goes on to the longer part.
    (It) perched on the plum
    In English the verb requires a subject, so we insert “it,” then we reverse the order because in English we say “perched on the plum” instead of “plum on perched.”  Notice that the Japanese has no “the,” because Japanese had no articles, no “the,” no “a,” no “an.”  But they are required for normal good English.  Notice also that we do not need the subject marker wa/ha, because it does not fit English grammar.  We know the perching is done by the nightingale because of the word order in the sentence.  But to convey the sense of the hokku, we should add the word “has”:
    (It) has perched on the plum
    Mukashi means “ancient,” “old,” “past.”  When we add kara it means literally “ancient from,” but in English we would say “from ancient times,” or “from of old.”  So we can end the verse with
    From ancient times.
    You can see how very clipped the structure of hokku Japanese is compared to normal English.  Nonetheless that is no obstacle in translation, because the meaning is conveyed easily in this case from one language to another.
    Notice also that the original Japanese had no upper case or lower case letters, because it did not use letters; it used a mixture of borrowed Chinese Characters (kanji) and Japanese phonetic symbols (hiragana).  Nor did hokku Japanese — or old Japanese in general — have punctuation.  In that it is similar to many ancient Western documents, which also had no punctuation, and consequently proved quite confusing.  In translating original manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, for example, scholars sometimes have to guess where one sentence ended and another began.
    Punctuation was adopted in English for precisely this reason, and for its invaluable function in enabling fine shades of pause and emphasis.  That is why we unfailingly use it in hokku, and it serves the purpose superbly — better even than the old cutting words, which were not quite as expressive on the whole.
    We now have the entire hokku:
    The nightingale —
    It has perched on the plum
    From ancient times.
    By “plum” is meant of course the tree, not an individual fruit.
    Onitsura presents us with a subject — the nightingale — and then he makes an evident statement about it.  Not a statement of opinion, but something very obvious and not requiring intellection.  There are many, many hokku that follow this pattern, and so we call this type of hokku a “statement” hokku.
    Onitsura sees a nightingale perched on a branch of flowering plum; in Japanese culture, the plum tree and the nightingale had been associated with one another in literature for a long, long time.  So Onitsura sees both the present and the past, and realizes that
    The nightingale —
    It has perched on the plum
    From ancient times.
    As Blyth said,
    We get a vista of birds and trees, in which this plum-tree is all plum-trees, this uguisu all uguisu.”
    It is very much like the lines of Walter de la Mare from his poem All That’s Past:
    Very old are the woods;
    And the buds that break
    Out of the briar’s boughs,
    When March winds wake,
    So old with their beauty are —
    Oh, no man knows
    Though what wild centuries
    Roves back the rose.
    To allay the fears of those who might think that I am going to go into such great linguistic detail every time I present an old hokku, I have no intention of doing that.  We write in English, not Japanese.  Nonetheless it is useful — at least once — to have a clear picture of just what old Japanese hokku looked like, of how it was structured, and of how it is translated into English.
    This particular example is further useful in that it shows us the inappropriateness of using a Spring verse that speaks of plum trees and nightingales at the end of summer and beginning of autumn, when we are beginning the decline of the year.  That verse was meant for the beginning of the year, and that is why we customarily read and write hokku in season, not out of season.
David

A QUICK LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF HOKKU

Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme, except occasionally by accident.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing, awkward or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself (or herself), he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called haikai renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of  the kind of  hokku practiced from the 17th to the early 20th centuries.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing this kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach today is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the late 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live lives more in keeping with hokku aesthetics, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence; and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had often radically changed its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic, meditative spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and that gave it the clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.

 

David

HOKKU AS SPIRITUAL VERSE

Hokku at its best was and is spiritual verse.

That does not mean “religious” in any dogmatic sense.  It is not about dogmas and beliefs.  It is spiritual in that it re-unites — if only briefly — subject and object, humans and Nature.

We are accustomed to verses in which a writer writes about himself and his emotions, or about his opinions and comments on things and events.  Many think this is essential to being modern and relevant.  But they forget that what is ultimately relevant is our relation to Nature, from which we come, by which we live, and to which we return.  Forgetting that has led us to the dangerous worldwide environmental situation in which we now find ourselves.

In hokku we do not dwell on ourselves and our emotions, we do not expound on things and events.  Instead we return to the the most primal level of existence — sensory experience.  We are simply presented with things and events, and all we need do is experience them.

On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

It is fundamental to hokku to know that this is not a symbol of something else.  It is not a metaphor.  It is only what it is. You will find nothing hidden in it, nothing to interpret.  There is no attached meaning to it, nor commentary, nor emotion.  We are simply to experience it.  And that experience is hokku.

Hokku are simply things and events, without interpretation, without added ornaments or commentary.

Have you ever noticed that a thing is an event, that our common separation of the world into nouns and verbs — things and actions — is really false?   That a leaf, for example, does not exist in the abstract?  There is only a leaf growing, or coloring, or trembling in the wind, or falling, or lying on the ground, or decaying.  We cannot separate thing and action, thing and change, though the change may be so slow as to be imperceptible — but even then there is simply a leaf leafing.  A thing is an event, and without things there are no events.  So we could say that a hokku is an experience of a thing-event.

Not everything is hokku, however.  Hokku are thing-events in which we feel an inexpressible significance, something that cannot be put into words, but can only be experienced.

On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

But why do we feel this unspoken significance?  We could take this verse apart, and any element of it will have some effect separately, but it is only by combining them that we get the hokku effect, which is a sense of unity and harmony.  Without this harmony of elements, a hokku will not work — it will not be effective.

There is no writer present.  When we read it, there is only the crow perched on the withered branch in the autumn evening.  If we are reading it with our full attention, that is all that is.  The reader thus becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (the crow on the withered bough in autumn) disappears.

That is why we speak of a hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment.  That is the “Zen” of hokku, and anyone can know from experience that it is not theory but fact.  If one is reading a hokku intently, the “self” is forgotten, and only the hokku exists — not as words and lines, but as a sensory experience of a thing-event.

We have all had a similar experience when, on reading a book or watching a movie, everything else disappeared from our perception, leaving only what was read or watched.  So there is nothing mysterious about this.  But we must not forget that it is only a “little” and momentary enlightenment — a far lesser analog to the greater enlightenment spoken of in meditative traditions.

Hokku, as R. H. Blyth said, tell us things we know, but did not know that we know.  They “show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, — and not recognized it.”

Yet no one has ever become enlightened in the greater sense simply by reading hokku.  One should not suppose that writing and reading hokku is in itself a substitute for spiritual practice.  Even Bashō, the most famous writer of hokku, is said to have been distraught at the time of his death, lamenting that he had become obsessed with hokku and its wider context of haikai, and had not spent enough time on spiritual development.  We must not repeat that mistake.

We have seen that hokku are about thing-events, and that nothing exists in the abstract, only in relation to something else.  It is the same with hokku, which have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  In hokku everything takes place not at some indefinite time, but in relation to a season.  So there are Spring hokku, Summer hokku, Autumn or Fall hokku and Winter hokku.  Because season is so important, old hokku generally contained a kind of “key” word that would indicate the season.  It might be stated directly:

The summer moon

Or it might be shown through a less obvious season word.

The morning glory

A verse about a morning glory is an autumn verse in the old Japanese system.

Because of this seasonal classification of things, verses could easily be anthologized not only by season, but also by subject.  But over time this system became too  complex and rigid, so that by the late 19th century there were dictionaries of season words, and it took a student years to learn and apply them well.  The system had become unwieldy and impractical, and when hokku moved out of Japan and began to be written in other countries, the number of possible subjects and their seasonal classifications became ridiculously expanded.

Nonetheless, season is very important to hokku, as we have seen.  It places a thing-event in its context within the year, so it is not just a floating abstraction.  That is why modern hokku did not abandon the important seasonal connection, it just shifted from the complex season word system to the very simple and practical marking of each verse with its season, whether Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter.  The student no longer has to spend years on learning seasonal classifications of every possible subject.  This simplicity is very much in keeping with the nature of hokku, which is avoidance of excess and keeping to the essence of things.

When we write a hokku, therefore, we are writing a thing-event in a seasonal context.  That helps to give a great deal of atmosphere to a verse.  Suppose, for example, we are writing about rain.  In hokku there is no such thing as “rain” in the abstract, just as nothing in reality exists in the abstract.  There is only

Spring rain;

Summer rain;

Autumn rain;

Winter rain.

By just adding the season, we greatly change the effect of the hokku.  How great a difference there is, for example, between a Spring moon and an Autumn moon!

If you have been paying close attention, you will perhaps have begun to notice that hokku is all about relationships and interconnections.  Nothing in the universe exists in isolation, but only in relation to something else.   Awareness of those relationships is what enables the writer to create a hokku filled with harmony and unity.

This harmony is a fundamental principle not only of hokku but of all the contemplative arts, including flower arrangement.  To have an arrangement of  Spring flowers in the Fall is inharmonious, and does not give us a sense of unity; the flowers are out of keeping with the season.  It would be like Halloween in May.  Writers of hokku must be very attentive to harmony.

A hokku is not simply an assemblage of unrelated things and events.  Everything in a verse relates to everything else, and if there is something out of harmony — out of keeping with the other elements and the season — the verse will fail as hokku.

Harmony in hokku does not mean everything must be the same.  In summer, a verse about heat is very much in keeping with the season.  That is a harmony of identity.  But there is also the harmony of contrast.  In hokku we are not only very aware of harmony of similarity, but also of the perceived harmony of opposites — of contrasts.  That is why along with a verse about heat, we may find a Summer verse such as Onitsura’s

A cool wind;
The empty sky is filled
With the sound of pines.

So remember the two kinds of harmony in hokku — similarity and contrast.  A snowstorm in winter is similarity; a warm fire in winter is contrast.  Both give us a sense of appropriateness, of harmony and unity.

Because harmony and unity are so important to hokku, we do not write a hokku out of season, and we also read hokku in their proper season.  Of course when teaching I will sometimes use out-of-season verses as examples, but that is only to help the student.  It is important to remember that except for teaching, hokku are written and read in the appropriate season.  And if you have been reading on my site for a long time, you will perhaps have noticed that even in teaching, I tend to favor verses that are in season at the time when I write on a given topic.

The interrelationships of elements in hokku bring us back to their spirituality.  Spiritual traditions tell us that our sense of separateness is illusion.  If one does a spiritual practice, one begins to discover an underlying unity among all things that superficially seem separate.  And that can drastically change how one perceives both the world and the “self.”  Hokku, again, is only a little hint of what such a profound perception is — again a kind of analog on a much lesser level.

Hokku returns us to Nature, to OUR nature — our sun nature and moon nature, our rain and wind nature, our river, stream and pond nature, our dragonfly and river stone nature.  It rejoins what had been cut asunder, and the universe once more takes on something far deeper than intellectual meaning — it becomes profoundly significant in its smallest manifestations — a leaf sinking through clear water, a bird scratching amid dry leaves.

That is hokku.

David