Hokku- the Japanese Art of Prosody

The ancient tradition of poetry in Japan which was transmitted by the ancestors to the descendants has influenced the rules and canons of the modern hokku. The rules and manner of writing hokku are firm and unwavering like the other things associated with Japan such as the garden of 13 stones, sushi and warm sake. Following the rules id the national feature of the Japanese personality.

The Japanese poetry differs dramatically from the European and Eastern one, for example Indian and Chinese. The influence of Zen Buddhism has brought its rules of laconism and meditative observation of the object to the Japanese poetry. The lines of hokku are characterized by the in-depth view and total absorption by the depicted event or object. There are as little word required as possible to transmit the slightest elusive feeling of the changing word. That’s why each word of Japanese poetry carries great significance in spite of the laconism of the poetic lines.

The two basic styles of the Japanese poetry are hokku (the Japanese tercet) and tanka (the Japanese pentastich). The first one differs from another with the amount of the lines. Maybe tanka reveals the sense better, but hokku has the more intense emotional coloring. Hokku had been sourced from tanka.

Hokku was originated from the entertainment of the ancient Japanese peasants. Later it was developed to the tradition of the court prosody. Each court of the Emperor contained the poets. Some of them were even the descendants of the average plain families. They reached their high titles by their hard work compiling the poetry to entertain the Emperor. Originally these poems were aimed to describe the court affairs, nature and earthly passions. Later hokku developed into a lyrical and philosophical poem. Nowadays it depicts the cycle of life and death and the life of a human being on the background of the times of the year changing each other. Hokku is full of light sadness and mediation. It is connected with the Buddhist tradition of admiring the unstable and elusive reality.

The high art of hokku and fixed pace 5-7-5 in the text didn’t allow many poets to became widely known and popular. The most famous hokku poets of Japan are Matshuo Baso and Kobayasi Issa, who devoted all their life to composing the refined and thoughtful lines. They also founded the school of hokku and developed the codices of hokku creating rules.

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