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).