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.
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. He did precisely this:
1. Shiki removed hokku from its centuries-long position as the first and opening verse of a haikai verse sequence, eliminating its connection with linked verse. 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.”
Do not misunderstand this and think that Shiki created a new verse form appearing independent of linked verse for the first time. Independent hokku were nothing even remotely new, but really a very old practice. In the old haikai tradition, hokku could appear in at least three ways: As part of a haikai linked verse sequence, or 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.”
So that is what Shiki did. He made it theoretically impossible for what he called the haiku to be written in the context of a linked verse (renga) sequence, and he decided to call it something other than what its name had been for centuries.
If we look at Shiki’s own “haiku,” we find that they are really just hokku in form and content — hokku that he decided to call “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, in essence, to initiate a trend of confusion that has continued up to the present.
When compared to older hokku, Shiki’s “haiku” often seem 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 looks puzzled or says 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 and in Japanese culture in general.
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 seeming 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 sometimes tend to be merely two-dimensional, lacking 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 — often somewhat shallow and illustrative hokku 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, particularly in the West.
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 tends often to 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 irritation. But gradually more and people more in the modern haiku community have come to recognize and admit that what they write has little or no connection to the hokku of Onitsura and Bashō beyond brevity. 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 conservative haiku of Shiki.
Once people begin to realize that “haiku” is an inaccurate and anachronistic and mistaken term when applied to the hokku tradition,then they can begin to see things realistically, and can then begin to learn what hokku really is as opposed to the misunderstands so prevalent in the 20th century.
In general the modern haiku tradition has lost the obligatory old hokku connection with Nature, with the seasons, and with the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku. Modern haiku is for the most part a new Western brief verse form with remarkably shape-shifting and fluid boundaries. I must, however, add one disclaimer. There are a few individuals in modern haiku today that do maintain some genuine 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 are influenced by less-radical 20th-century Japanese haiku, having aesthetics are not quite those of the old hokku, but are very 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 is modern haiku in general.
Now what is the point in saying all this? The reason I take the time to write this — apart from historical accuracy — is that in order to learn to write hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, one must distinguish it from modern 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.