People sometimes tell me that the fragmentation and constant change and bickering one sees in modern haiku (in contrast to hokku) are a sign of vitality and creativity.  Not surprisingly, I do not at all see it that way.  Instead I see it as a symptom of instability and impatience and childish ego-centeredness.

The constant jumping from one thing to another one sees in haiku enthusiasts, the constant dissatisfaction and looking for something new, reminds me of the character of Euro-Americans as seen through the eyes of a Native American — a view that profoundly shocked Carl Gustav Jung because he immediately recognized the truth in it:

Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are mad.” (from Memories, Dreams, Reflections)



As I have pointed out in earlier postings, some old hokku do not travel well.  They are so oriented to a specific culture that when removed from that context, they lose their meaning.

A good example is Shōha’s

Haru tatsu ya   shizuka ni tsuru no    ippo yori
Spring begins ya    quiet with stork  ‘s  one-step from

Tatsu in Japanese means to stand or rise, but it also has the sense of “to begin, to start,” just as a person who is about to go on a journey begins by first standing.  Ni commonly means “at, on, in” but in this case it has more the sense of “with,” so shizuka ni is to be understood as meaning “with quietness” or “quietly.”  We can translate the verse as

Spring begins,
Quietly from the stork’s
First step.

The verse only loses its obscurity when one realizes that in Japan the stork is a traditional symbol of longevity — long life.  A first step is a beginning; spring is similarly a beginning (remember the principle of reflection in hokku?)  So when one sees the stork take a first step, that reflects spring beginning as the “first step” of the new year.  The stork’s first step is to put us in mind of the beginning of a long life, as spring is the beginning of the long year.  Thus spring begins as the stork takes his first step.  Those are the cultural connections and intuitive leaps required by this hokku, and of course they are too much baggage to allow it to be meaningful immediately in another culture.  But remember, we are not talking metaphor here; we are using the hokku principle of reflection, which Westerners sometimes confuse with metaphor, but they are not at all the same.

Another hokku, this time by Sodō, is a bit easier to transfer from culture to culture:

Yado no haru   nani mo naki koso  nani mo are
Hut   ‘s    spring something is not indeed everything is

This verse relies on the paradox of nani mo naki (there is not a thing) versus nani mo are (there is everything).  We can translate it as

The spring hut;
There is nothing,
Yet there is everything.

Or one could rephrase it as:

My spring hut;
It has nothing,
But it has everything!

This verse is the kind of spiritual paradox beloved by Zen.  We often divide the world into the “haves” and the “have nots,” but in the spiritual life there is no difference between having and not having.  One who has sees it as no different from not having, and one who has not sees it as no different from having.  This is the “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all these things shall be added unto you.”  You have without having, because neither having nor not having has any meaning any more.  The spiritual novice who gives up things and misses them still has them (mentally), because he has not really given them up but is still attached.  The spiritual novice who has possessions and is not attached to them has given them up already, and physically ridding himself of them is a mere outward formality.

Sodō’s verse has a contrast between “is” and “is not”; Shiki has a verse that contrasts big and small:

Kobune koide    ōbune meguru    haruhi kana
Small-boat floats big-boat around  spring-day kana

A small boat
Goes around a big boat;
The spring day.

If one reads Blyth’s translation of this verse, one will find it as a small boat going around a “great vessel.”  We must always remember than Blyth was not interested in being absolutely literal in his translations.  Instead, he wanted to convey the overall meaning of a hokku to those in the West who were not likely to get it without such an “expanded” translation.  And in this case he is again right.

It brings to mind a large, sea-going ship in a harbor, standing virtually still in the water as a comparatively tiny boat sails around it.  One thinks of a tug going around a large transport ship.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of verse that begins to take us away from Nature, and it was by this and even more borderline verses that Shiki began the movement away from Nature and into technological things that we so often find in modern haiku, but never in modern hokku.

Incidentally, readers will notice the frequency with which Shiki ends a verse in kana.  He does it so often that it is characteristic of him.  But he was really just using the word as a neutral filler to pad out the last number of phonetic units required for a hokku.  There are those who say it was used for emphasis, and in some cases it was, but with Shiki it is generally just a perfunctory space holder not to be translated.

As for the significance of the verse, whatever Shiki himself may have taken it to be (remember that often he was simply interested in making a sketch in words), to the student of hokku it reflects the slow passing of the long day of spring, which is felt in spite of the small activities that happen during it.  But keep in mind that one must not take this as a metaphor.  It is simply the nature of one thing reflected in the nature of others.


Shiki and Spring

There are two ways of looking at Masaoka Shiki, the fellow who nearly destroyed hokku through his revisionism.

Historically speaking, Shiki is the originator of the “haiku” as the term is understood today.  All modern writers of haiku, no matter how radical and strange, can be traced back to the revisionist changes begun by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  Modern hokku alone does not trace its lineage through Shiki.

Practically speaking, however — speaking about what Shiki actually wrote as opposed to his terminology and theory — Shiki can be considered the last major writer of old hokku.  Why?  Because in form and structure, Shiki’s verses often still qualify as hokku.  They are seasonal and they follow — broadly — the usual conventions of the hokku.  It is true that Shiki’s subject matter sometimes severely strained or tore the envelope (setting the stage for all the non-Nature related haiku to come), but many of his verses are quite acceptable as hokku, though they are sometimes merely illustrative, often shallow, and occasionally just odd reflections of a physically and spiritually ill individual.

It is important to note that Shiki, though radical in his time, was really surprisingly conservative in his verse.  He kept the seasonal connection and generally the connection with Nature.  He was not even remotely as different as modern writers of western haiku.  Shiki’s chief influence (and negative influence) was not so much in his verses as in the theory and terminology he attached to them.  He was a kind of propagandist of haiku, and as a propagandist he was quite successful, as the history of the haiku movement shows.  But this influence was not in getting others to follow his style, which remained in general that of the old hokku; it was, rather, in introducing the presumed right of the individual to change the hokku however one wished and to call it whatever one wished, and the baneful result of that is easily seen today in the fragmentation, confusion, chaos, and continual change and bickering that characterize the modern haiku movement.

Shiki wrote:

Daibutsu no    utsura-utsura to    haruhi kana
Great-Buddha  ‘s  dozing-dozing  with spring-day kana

The Great Buddha
Dozing and dozing;
The spring day.

R. H. Blyth actually improves the verse in his translation:

The Great Buddha,
Dozing, dozing,
All the spring day.

The improvement is in the addition of the word “all,” emphasizing the length of the day, the passage of uneventful time.

The Great Buddha is a very large outdoor image of the Buddha, actually not sleeping at all, but in meditation.  Shiki, however, being an agnostic, just sees a large figure with eyes closed and motionless, and he thinks of it as drowsily dozing away on a peaceful spring day.

We can analyze the structure like this:

Setting:  the spring day
Subject:  the Great Buddha
Action:  dozing, dozing.

Blyth’s punctuation is a bit unconventional.  In modern hokku we would likely present it like this:

The Great Buddha,
Dozing and dozing
All the spring day.

That is fully acceptable as a hokku.  The only difference is that understood as a haiku, one could not use it as the first of a series of linked verses; as a hokku, one can use it either alone or in a linked verse series.  Hokku, then, is still a part of haikai, the term used by Bashō and all the others for their wider practice in which hokku were written.  Haiku, in contrast,  has not been a part of haikai since Shiki.  Hokku is also haikai; haiku is not.

It is worth nothing that Blyth’s improvement of the verse makes it better when considered a hokku, because the uneventful length and peace of the spring day are reflected in the immobility and apparent ongoing drowsiness of the image.  Remember that hokku do not use metaphors — they instead use elements that reflect one another.

One of the best old hokku on the beginning of spring is this, by Issa:

kado-gado no   geta no doro yori  haru tachinu
gate-gate   ‘s     geta ‘s   mud  from  spring  rises

Geta are the traditional wooden clogs worn in old Japan, platforms for the feet, each set on two vertical wooden cleats that kept the foot well above the mud.

The verse makes more sense if we anglicize and westernize it, and take it as an American verse written in a place that gets cold winters:

At every door,
Spring begins with the mud
On the shoes.

This verse then becomes very meaningful.  It tells us the days of winter frost are over, that the surface of the ground has melted, and with it comes the mud that sticks to shoes.  Outside every door muddy shoes have been left as the wearers went inside.  The muddy shoes are spring; spring is the muddy shoes at each door.  That is the hokku way to understand the verse.

We see something similar in a verse by Rankō, which I will again westernize:

Dusting themselves in the dirt;
The spring day.

This may not mean much to someone raised in a city, but every country person will know that chickens fluff themselves up and dig themselves into the ground, “dusting themselves” as farm people say.  It is just something chickens do.  One can often see birds doing the same thing.

But the point of the verse is that the dirt is dry enough for chickens to do this, meaning the rains have ended, the warmth of spring has come and has dried the soil, and the chickens hurry to dust themselves in the fine, dry powder.  That is a manifestation of spring as sure as Issa’s mud on the shoes, though of course considerably later in the season.



In old hokku, spring began with the Lunar New Year, which came on varying dates between the end of January and the middle of February.  This year, for example, the Lunar New Year will happen on February 14th.

In modern hokku, however, we orient ourselves neither to the Western calendar nor to the Lunar calendar.  Instead, we either follow the old traditional European calendar, in which Spring begins on Candlemas at the start of February, or we see what is happening in Nature.  When we see the first early signs of spring, that is when spring begins for us.

Yesterday I took a long walk up a nearby hill, and on the way I saw pussy willow catkins already appearing, and that means early as it is, spring is beginning.

In hokku we always orient ourselves as well to the universal elements of Yin and Yang.  Beginning spring is the most yin time of the season, but already yang is visible within it.  Yang will increase until it reaches its spring high at the end of the season.  Then it will continue to increase into summer, when yang reaches its peak, and then it will begin its decline again as yin increases through autumn and finally reaches its peak in winter.  So all of Nature — all of the seasons — are the interplay between Yin and Yang, and that is important to know in hokku.

The beginning of spring, then, means the first obvious signs of growing yang appearing in Nature — the appearance of green shoots out of the earth, of catkins and buds on trees.  In human life this corresponds to infancy and early childhood.  In the day it corresponds to the first signs of dawn and the early hours of and after sunrise.

It should be obvious, then, that hokku expressing spring deal with freshness and beginnings, of signs of activity appearing out of the inactivity of yin.

Every writer of hokku must keep in mind two things:  Nature and season.  Without Nature there is no hokku.  Without season there is no hokku.  Hokku is the verse of Nature and the seasons.  It expresses Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set within the ever changing context of the season.  That is why anthologies such as that of R. H. Blyth (though he mislabels hokku as haiku) present hokku divided into four seasons — spring, summer, autumn or fall, and winter.  And within each season, the hokku are further divided according to traditional Japanese categories.

Those categories for spring are:

The New Year (traditionally a category of its own);
The Season;
Sky and Elements;
Fields and Mountains;
Gods and Buddhas;
Human Affairs;
Birds and Beasts;
Trees and Flowers;

These remain useful categories for our hokku today.  When further subdivided, they reveal the characteristics of spring in a given location — local climates and plants and creatures, which vary from region to region.  Spring in the Pacific Northwest, for example, manifests itself differently than spring in the Appalachians.  One will find different trees, different plants and flowers, different creatures, and so on.

The most important thing, however, is never to forget that a hokku should manifest the nature of the season through what is included in it.  A spring hokku about pumpkins would be incongruous and inappropriate.  A spring hokku about violets is in harmony with Nature and the season.

I have always taught hokku primarily from the best examples of the old Japanese writers translated into appropriate English-language hokku form.  By studying these, by using them as models, one may quickly learn the structure and nature of hokku.  They show us what to do and sometimes what not to do in composing.  Teaching from old models further ensures that what the student is learning is real hokku, not some form of modern haiku or make-it-up-as-you-go brief free verse.

Spring is the time of beginnings, and it is a very good time to begin learning real hokku, seeing how the season was expressed by those who founded our practice of hokku so long ago.

Whenever discussing hokku, it is always a good idea to say something about R. H. Blyth.  Unfortunately his books are all out of print at present.  The modern world has such different goals that Blyth has been, if not forgotten, put aside for the present.  That is a very sad symptom of what our society has become.

The most important things to know about Blyth are these:

1.  He unfortunately generally referred anachronistically to hokku as “haiku,” using the term popularized by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  One must forgive Blyth, because he simply used the term popular in the Japan of his day.  It can be very confusing to readers, however, who must know that in reading him, the bulk of what he talks about is hokku, not haiku, even when he uses the latter term.  Today we correct that by simply recognizing that haiku did not begin until the revisions of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century, and that what came before is correctly termed hokku.  Bashō, Onitsura, Buson, Issa, and all the rest who came before Shiki were writers of hokku within the wider context of haikai.  So hokku is much older than haiku, and it is very important today to make the distinction.

2.  Having said that, one must recognize R. H. Blyth as still the foremost authority on the aesthetics of hokku.  If one wants to understand what is behind hokku, one should read all of Blyth’s commentaries very carefully, comparing them to the verses on which he is commenting.  This provides the reader a “master class” in the aesthetics of hokku, and learning from Blyth in this manner is invaluable.

3.  One must realize that Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku.  When he began, he was explaining an old tradition that by his time, after the revisions of Shiki, was in a profound state of decline aesthetically.  He thought that hokku was virtually dead, and though he bemoaned the fact as evidence of the stupidity of man, he did not anticipate an interest in its revival until near the end of his writing of works on hokku.  Even then, he made only a few perfunctory suggestions as to how what he called “haiku” (but meant “hokku”) might be written in English.

What this means is that though Blyth was an excellent teacher of the aesthetics of hokku, he was primarily a commentator and a translator.  One might expect that one could learn to write hokku in English simply from copying the patterns of his translations, but that is only partially true.  His main purpose was in conveying the meaning of Japanese hokku in English, and to do that he sometimes took liberties, translating what the writer “meant” and not what he actually wrote.  Blyth was superb at this because he really understood the spirit of Japanese hokku, but it can sometimes be confusing for the learner, because in translating Blyth could be much more loose in the use of structure and form than the originals he was translating.  Again, that is because his purpose was to explain hokku to Westerners, not to teach them how to write it.

Of course those of you who have been long-time readers here will know how to write it in matters of form and structure, because I have explained all of that, based directly on the structure of Japanese hokku and of how they are best adapted to the nature and structure of the English language.  It is really quite simple, and once one knows that, one knows how to adapt Blyth’s explanations so they are both meaningful and helpful rather than misleading.

Having said all of that, reading Blyth, though immensely helpful, is not necessary to learning hokku.  Over the years I have taught students what they need to know for an excellent foundation in hokku, and the rest is up to the student.

One need only keep in mind that hokku and modern haiku are two very different things.  In fact one could say that hokku is one thing, and modern haiku is a multitude of often contradictory things, because while hokku has very definite standards and aesthetic principles, modern haiku varies to fit the whims of individual writers, who feel quite free to make up their own versions of haiku.  For all general purposes therefore, hokku is not haiku, and the two should never be confused.  One should never refer to pre-Shiki hokku as “haiku,” because it is both anachronistic and historically incorrect.  Further, it only causes endless and needless confusion.

This rather rambling posting is my way of saying that spring is at the doorstep, and it is time for many of us in temperate regions to begin thinking of spring hokku instead of winter hokku.  And thinking of spring hokku, it is also a good time to refresh and review our practice and understanding of hokku — or for those who know little or nothing about it, a good time to begin learning hokku.

Though I may sometimes mention haiku here for historical and other reasons, I do not teach haiku, and have little interest in it.  I teach hokku, a continuation in English of the same kind of verse that was practiced in Japan for several centuries prior to the popularization of the haiku by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  There are multitudes of haiku sites and teachers.  But to my knowledge, this is the only site that teaches all aspects of the practice of hokku as a modern form of verse making.

I wish there were other legitimate teachers of hokku out there, but they simply do not exist at present, sad though the fact may be.  I hope some day that will change.


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 extend 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, like Higginson, 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.

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.



Someone kindly sent me the link to an article by James W. Hackett on the “aesthetic devolution” of modern haiku.  No doubt the person who shared the link felt that Hackett and I perceive similar problems, though I teach hokku and Hackett is a proponent of haiku.


Hackett begins by saying that after fifty years of living and writing haiku, he is sad to witness its “devolution into aesthetic anarchy” in some haiku journals.  My view on this is that haiku quickly began its devolution into aesthetic anarchy even while Shiki was still alive in Japan — in other words, only a few years after it was begun by Shiki near the end of the 19th century.  And in the West haiku has from its inception been both vaguely-defined and confused.  Western haiku began in virtual aesthetic anarchy.

That is the result of two major factors:  First, the unfortunate widespread, anachronistic, and historically inaccurate use of Shiki’s favored term “haiku”  in the modern haiku community to describe what was really hokku.

Second, the application of the same revisionist term to what was mistakenly promoted in the West as the continuation of the old hokku tradition — all the misperceptions and misunderstandings of old hokku that were publicized in the latter half of the 20th century as “haiku” in English and other Western languages.

Hackett suggests it is time for a re-thinking and re-application of the use of the terms “haiku” and “haiku poetry,” advocating that “haiku poetry” be used instead of “haiku” to describe “literate verses that manifest writing skill, and some emotive suggestion.”

Unfortunately, that is merely stirring the mud in the pond instead of clearing the water.  What is really needed is a complete separation — first of the term “haiku” from what is really and legitimately hokku — all those verses written from the 15th century through the end of the 19th century in Japan — and secondarily a separation of  modern haiku into appropriate classifications.  Haiku has become an umbrella term so vague and inclusive as to be virtually meaningless.  There is traditional haiku — the haiku taught and practiced by writers such as Shiki and Kyoshi, and there is non-traditional haiku — all the wide variety of things called haiku today no matter how greatly they may differ from one another.

But fundamental and first is the absolute necessity of distinguishing hokku from haiku, both historically and aesthetically.  Writers should be called to account when they messily, inaccurately and anachronistically use the term “haiku” when what they are really talking about is hokku — all that was written prior to the revisionism of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — in other words, the roughly three hundred years of hokku before Shiki began misapplying the term “haiku.”

Second, I think Hackett only adds to the confusion by his suggested distinction between “haiku” and “haiku poetry.”  What he is really talking about — though perhaps he is too polite to say it — is simply verbally marking the difference between bad haiku and good haiku.  But that, if one refuses to follow historical precedents of form and content, is so subjective as to only contribute to the present chaotic situation in the modern haiku community.  Again, one must first distinguish hokku from haiku.  Second, one must distinguish traditional haiku from other kinds of modern, non-traditional haiku.  Then and only then can one begin to speak of distinctions of quality, because it is only then that one will know which aesthetic standards to apply to a given verse.

I believe Hackett also goes astray when he he writes, “the sanctity of haiku’s intuitive, emotive experience should, I believe, take precedence over theoretical considerations of form, syntax, and style.”

Well, that is what already has happened in modern haiku, and it has proven itself to be part of the problem instead of the solution.  It is precisely because Western poets and do-it-yourself haiku pundits did not understand the theoretical considerations of form  in hokku, combined with their near complete misreading of its aesthetics, that  the mess that is modern haiku came to be.

Without dealing with each point he makes, it is worth saying that Hackett and I do share certain views, though he advocates haiku and I hokku.  We both, for example, recognize the value of punctuation and of normal English usage.

Yet aside from what we share, I do not think Hackett’s suggestions go to the root of the problem, and I feel quite sure that they will not make the slightest impact upon the confused and contradictory and endlessly ephemeral aesthetics of the modern haiku movement.

Hackett is, essentially, an advocate of a view of haiku that those in the modern haiku movement will immediately consider old-fashioned and outdated — a haiku that is closer in nature to the practice of hokku.  But  instead of taking the logical step and simply returning to the practice and aesthetics of hokku, Hackett instead seems bent on attempting the impossible — reversing the course of haiku today, of what it has become after over half a century of confused and contradictory standards imposed upon a naïve public by the American and British pundits of haiku in the 20th century — standards which reflected only their misunderstandings and misperceptions of the old hokku translated into an aesthetic framework borrowed largely from Western avant-garde poetry in the 20th century — a framework that is now itself viewed as dated and old-fashioned.

Hackett would seemingly like to turn back time to an illusory “golden age,” the days when haiku was first beginning in the West, but even in those first days the Western concept of haiku was so confused and subjective that one has to say there never has been a decline of haiku in the West because, aesthetically speaking, haiku never rose in the West.  It began and it is likely to end simply as a Western misunderstanding of the far superior (in my view) hokku form and aesthetic.

As I have pointed out many times, haiku began as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku, and it has continued as such, evolving and fragmenting continually.  There is no point in trying to put the pieces of Humpty-Dumpty together again.  Haiku has moved on.

I think Hackett has his heart in the right place, but he does not recognize the fact that the house has already burnt down.  It is too late to be installing fire alarms.  Western poets and haiku pundits created a Western haiku that was individual and subjective in standards and aesthetics, and what we are seeing — and what Hackett deplores — is simply the continuation and working out of that paradigm.  It is sad, because Hackett sees the negative results but fails to deal with the root of the problem.  And the root of the problem is simply that haiku in the West has always been a misperception and misunderstanding of the hokku.

The solution, then, is not to try to change modern haiku, which is what it is.  Instead one need only return to the genuine principles and aesthetics of the hokku.

It makes me very glad that I teach hokku, which though very old in form and aesthetics is nonetheless very contemporary because it is based on timeless standards and universal principles.  It is not blown about by every wind of trend and fashion, as is modern haiku.  Haiku changes its aesthetics to fit the individual; hokku changes the individual to fit its aesthetics.  When one understands the meaning of this, one understands the foundation of hokku, whether old or modern.




Depth in hokku depends on both writer and reader.  We can see that on examining two verses of Bashō written in two different years, both winter hokku.  Here is the first:

Byōbu ni wa    yama o egaite    fuyugomori
Screen on wa mountain o painted   winter-seclusion

On the screen,
A mountain is painted;
Winter seclusion.

On the surface this is a really mediocre verse.  Remember, not everything Bashō wrote was worth keeping — in fact only a fraction of his verses are memorable.  But this is where season and context come in, so let’s look closer.

Imagine that you are forced to stay indoors because of icy or snowy winter weather, day after day.  In that case, your eyes turn to the painted mountain on the folding screen, because you cannot go out to see the hills or mountains.  The stillness of the painting is in keeping with the stillness of your seclusion and isolation.  In such a case, suddenly the verse becomes significant.  The painted mountain reflects your winter seclusion, your isolation from the world outside.  Without this, the verse is a waste of time.

Now we must ask ourselves, was this in fact what Bashō intended, or is it something we are reading into the hokku?  That is a matter of concern only to academics.  We, as readers, have found the meaning in the verse, whether Bashō consciously put it there or not.  But if we do not have the perception to see the meaning, the verse remains flat and tasteless.  So a great deal in hokku depends not only on the writer but on the reader.

That is the explanation for the peculiar fact that sometimes people who are just beginning hokku will come up with a really significant verse, and then their other verses will simply be wasted ink.  It is often the case that a reader will perceive a meaning there that the writer was completely unaware of, creating a good hokku quite by accident.  Of course one cannot find significance in any verse.  There must be something there to trigger the aesthetic perception of the reader of hokku.

One can see from this that the aesthetic perception of the reader plays a great part in the evaluation of any hokku.  A good writer of hokku will be able to write more good hokku than simply one fortunate accident, but a good reader of hokku may sometimes transform a lack on the writer’s part into something significant.

Here is the second of the two hokku by Bashō:

Kinbyō no    matsu no furusa yo    fuyugomori
Gold-screen ‘s  pine  ‘s  oldness yo winter-seclusion

On the gold screen,
The pine is ancient;
Winter seclusion.

We can easily see how close it is to the first.  But there are differences.  First, the screen is gold, and as a screen with gold ages, it takes on a slightly different cast.  Added to that is the aged pine painted upon it.  This combination makes us feel the slow passage of time through many long years.  That reflects the feeling when one is shut in and isolated for a long duration in the middle of the cold and frost and snow of winter.  So we have here a strong sense of time and transience, of time passing with almost painful slowness.

We can liken that to what I call “Coomler’s Theory of Relativity.”  It is simply that work time passes far more slowly than free time.  Any office worker may verify this experientially.  Compare two hours at work (work one does not particularly enjoy) to two hours of watching an interesting movie or talking with friends.

There is a variant of the verse that uses “aging” instead of “aged”:

The pine
On the golden screen ages;
Winter seclusion.

I prefer this version.  The effect is like sitting in a room, hour after hour, with the slow tick of a grandfather clock in the background.  It gives us a remarkable sense of the drawn-out passage of time, unenlivened by television or music or chatter or any other distractions.  In such circumstances we begin to get a much clearer picture of what our minds are like, of how much they crave distraction.

All of this is a kind of lead-in to telling you that in the past, I have discussed hokku very much in the context of its history — of what this or that writer did to make a good verse.  From now on — to the extent that I post here — I will advocate simply my approach to hokku.

That takes us completely away from discussions of what Onitsura meant by sincerity, what Bashō meant by not imitating, and all the other things with which people interested in the history of hokku like to occupy their minds.

That does not mean the kind of hokku I present here will change much.  It just means that I will concentrate on the approach to hokku that is meaningful to me, and not waste time with anything else that may ever have been written as hokku — examples that may diverge from that approach in one way or another.  I will generally not bother with mediocre verses by any writer, no matter how famous, because my interest will not be in illustrating the range of old hokku.  I may, however, occasionally throw in a bad verse just to show what not to do.

What I am intending, of course, is defining a “school” of hokku, which again means a particular aesthetic approach to writing hokku, along with all others who share the same general aesthetic considerations and preferences.

Perceptive readers will perhaps think, well, isn’t that what he has been doing all along?  To a great extent it is.  But  a major difference will be that I will make no effort to justify this or that historically (though in most cases that can be done).  I will simply present what I think is the best way to read and write hokku.

In doing so, I will no doubt continue with old hokku used as models, because they do such a good job of conveying the matter.  But I will feel perfectly free to depart from conventional translation and understanding of such verses whenever doing so fits the needs of explaining the kind of hokku that really make the matter as a whole worthwhile for me.

Hokku must relate to life.  If it does not relate to life, it loses its value.  Yesterday I was thinking about Chinese brush painting, and how one can become proficient in it by learning to paint things one has never seen.  But does one really want paintings of  a stork by someone who has never seen a stork, paintings of a wild goose by someone who has never seen a wild goose, paintings of a water lily by someone who has never seen a water lily?  Such things are worse than imitation of life — they are simply imitations of imitations.  Our hokku should never be like that.  That is why we must write from our own experiences, constantly deepening and maturing as we walk the path of hokku.

I have often thought that I would like to write what I would call “American talks on Japanese hokku.”  Well, what I will do from now on — again to the extent that I am moved to do so and my time permits — will be pretty much that, except there will be no emphasis whatsoever on the “Japanese” part of it.  Instead, whether I am talking about hokku originally written in Japan or not, it will be simply one American’s talks on hokku.

I hope you will join me if what I have to say on the subject speaks to your condition.