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.