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Sunday, June 03, 2007

 For a long time it was thought that a great and impressive subject was necessary for poetry -- "sad stories of the death of kings" and such. There were of course exceptions, a major one being William Wordsworth, who, as Blyth writes in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, "...chooses the aged, the poor, the idiot, the vagrant...."

Having broken out of the notion that a great subject was necessary, there was still the notion that to be properly poetic, a subject had to be "worked up," that is, one had to, as Wordsworth wrote, "...throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination...to make these incidents and situations interesting...."

Fortunately Wordsworth ignored his own advice, but unfortunately there were and are a great many who did not and do not. They think that one has to "oomph" up an ordinary subject to make it suitably poetic.

There are many ways of doing this. One is to dramatize it, to try to make it more exciting. Another is to use conventionally poetic language, so that it is obvious to the reader that what he or she is perusing is POETRY, not prose. One may use exotic or unusual words like Poe's "tintinnabulation." Then too, one may use rhyme, which is not of itself objectionable, but which provides the one thing, in the minds of many, that can transform words into poetry, thus the endless stock of abysmally bad verses that counterbalance such excellent use of rhyme as found in Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. We learn from this that the presence or absence of rhyme is no genuine indicator of poetic content, just an indicator of the desire of the writer to create "poetry."

In hokku we drop all of these methods. We use ordinary subjects. We throw over them no "colouring of the imagination." We might arrange our simple words carefully for smooth flow, but we do not deliberately manipulate them "to make these incidents and situations interesting." In hokku they are either interesting or they are not, and if they are not, we should not use them.

Nor do we do anything unusual in form. Hokku consist of three lines, with the first word of each capitalized, and all having appropriate punctuation. We make no effort to be avant-garde by eliminating capitalization or punctuation or by using it haphazardly or oddly. Instead we take full advantage of the capacity of punctuation to give fine shades of pause and emphasis. This is not simply a bow to tradition, but a recognition that punctuated verse is far more expressive of the intent of the writer than unpunctuated verse, and it guides the reader smoothly through the verse without obstacle or puzzlement.

In fact the elimination of haphazard use of punctuation and capitalization has not been avant-garde in English-language verse for well over half a century, and now it is seen largely for what it was -- an experimental phase that served only to confirm why English adopted punctuation in the first place. There are many writers today who labor under the misapprehension that by not properly punctuating or capitalizing a verse that they are being somehow mysteriously poetic or are somehow cleverly imitating old Japanese verse (if that is the intent, why not go the whole way and write in Japanese?), but that is just a misguided affectation.

So hokku is not anything out of the ordinary. Written in English, it has no flavor of Asia or alien or exotic cultures, it is no more exotic than a "violet by a mossy stone" or a mouse in a barn. When we write it, we forget all about poetry as it is conventionally understood, because the poetry of hokku does not lie in a "colouring of the imagination," does not lie in unusual or conventionally poetic words, does not lie in oddities or absence of punctuation or capitalization. The poetry of hokku lies simply in the fact that it conveys an experience of the senses in a seasonal context, without either "poetry" or the writer getting in the way of that experience. The reader thus becomes the poet, allowing the experience to happen in his or her mind when the verse is read, and manifesting it inwardly through the reader's own past sensory experiences and memories.

Each person will thus experience the same hokku differently. A pond in hokku will be different for each person, depending on that individual's past experience of a pond or ponds. Mention the moon above trees in hokku, and one may see it above dark firs, another above tall maples, another over sycamores or elms or other kinds of trees. That is how the reader participates in the experience of hokku, and that is one reason why the poetry of hokku is not on the page, but rather in the mind of the reader.

Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 10:16 am by hokku


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