Here — for convenience — I have combined and slightly revised several earlier articles explaining how Western haiku enthusiasts thoroughly confused hokku and haiku in the 20th century, completely misunderstanding not only hokku but its connection to “Zen,” and thoroughly misleading the public in the process by inaccurate and anachronistic use of terminology. Unfortunately many in the modern haiku community continue to promote these fictions and misrepresentations even in the 21st century, and one must repeatedly correct their errors so that an unsuspecting public will not be taken in by them. The originals of these articles will be found separately in the archives. The linking of several related articles together here accounts for the repetition of certain key points.
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 the 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 after 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 in which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse. Up to that time, a hokku could appear either as an independent verse 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 divided into three lines.
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 and far more recent 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
Some time ago, 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 largely devoted to the hokku.
As previously mentioned, 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 extent those of Harold Gould Henderson.
Unfortunately, Blyth chose to ignore the correct term for the subject — hokku — and used instead the revisionist term then current in his Japan of the mid 1900s — “haiku.” Henderson, a lesser light, did the same.
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. The unfortunate and unanticipated result of this error in judgment is the modern haiku.
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 new, English-language “haiku.”
Thus, virtually at the beginning of the Western haiku movement, the damage by 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. In retrospect that is today all too obvious.
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, making up their own standards even as they presented them to the general public.
All of this is merely a lead-in to some further words on James W. Hackett. Previously 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 quickly brought forth monsters. Even from its 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, which was often hokku in all but name. 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, on the one hand calling his early verses “excellent” while on the other simultaneously writing that “more often there is too much ostensive, that is, overt thought” in them (History of Haiku, vol. 2, page 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 (a fourth writer at that time, Kenneth Yasuda, was far less influential, though reprints of his book The Japanese Haiku are still available).
Unfortunately it is not a happy society, because few have been so historically noted and so little heeded in the modern haiku movement 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, like William J. Higginson, 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 by this point 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, — if a vague and ill-defined category manipulated largely by amateurs, dabblers, and the ego-infatuated, and one should admit that it has an appeal for most Westerners that hokku simply does not have. That is because it demands so little of both writer and reader. So the haiku fits well into a society fascinated by the disposable and the shoddy.
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 and his aesthetics, 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 (and so far, since Hackett published his article, that has in fact proven to be the result). 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.
Over the years I have written about how hokku was hijacked in the middle of the 20th century by the haiku movement in the West. One could write a sizable volume on the history of how that took place and which prominent names in 20th century (and some 21st) haiku were involved.
Now there is certainly nothing wrong in the appearance of a new verse form. But one can and should legitimately object when a new verse form is misrepresented to the public as a continuation of an old verse form, which is precisely what the self-made pundits of modern haiku undertook from the 1960s onward. It is only recently that the public has begun to catch on to the fact that they have been had, that they are the victims of revisionism — that modern haiku is not a continuation of the old hokku as written by Taigi and Bashō and Onitsura and all the rest; instead it is a new verse form created out of the misperceiving and misrepresentation of hokku by writers in the 20th century.
Admittedly the public at large could hardly care less about all this, because numerically few are interested in modern haiku and even fewer in genuine hokku. But for those of us who do care, it is very important to call attention to those writers in the 21st century who persist, for whatever reason, in inaccurately labeling old hokku as “haiku” and who continue to promulgate the fiction that what they are teaching continues the tradition of the old writers of hokku.
If one wants to learn modern haiku, one is perfectly free to pick up hints and tips from any number of books and Internet fora and blogs. The range is vast and the standards so loose and flexible that one can write virtually anything one wishes and present it to the world as haiku as long as it is reasonably brief.
Hokku is quite a different matter. Hokku has very definite principles and standards, and if one wishes to learn how to write it, one must thoroughly understand the aesthetics and construction of the old hokku written from the 16th to the 20th centuries. It is not complicated, but it does involve a thorough re-thinking of one’s notions, a dropping of a great deal of inaccurate and unnecessary baggage picked up over the years from the misrepresentation of hokku as “haiku” by authors from the mid-20th century onward.
It requires a re-orientation (no pun intended) of the writer toward a verse form that takes one away from the self and into Nature, a form that pays little heed to the ego of the writer or to what is commonly known as “self-expression.” I sometimes introduce people to hokku through articles with titles such as “Hokku is Not What You Think it Is,” and that is quite true. Most people really have no idea at all what hokku is, and that is not surprising after half a century of misperception and misrepresentation of it by propagandistic enthusiasts of modern haiku.
So what is hokku? Read the articles in the archive on this site and you will begin to get a much clearer and more accurate picture than you have likely ever had from reading misinformation about it in books that incorrectly and anachronistically misrepresent it as “haiku.”
I have written many times 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.
As I have mentioned before, 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 am merely repeating myself. 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. What he did was precisely this:
1. Shiki removed hokku from its centuries-long position as the first and opening verse of a haikai verse sequence. 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.”
Looked at objectively, Shiki really only made only one and one-half rather than two major changes, because hokku appearing independently were nothing remotely new, but really a very old practice. In the old haikai, hokku could appear in at least three ways: As part of a haikai sequence, 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 historical error. What we can say is that Shiki began presenting the hokku independently under his new denomination “haiku.”
We are really left with only one major thing that Shiki did. He made it impossible for the haiku to be written in the context of a linked verse (renga) sequence.
If we look at Shiki’s own “haiku,” we find that what he really did was just to take the hokku — which already could appear independently — and rename it “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.
Aside from this, what Shiki did was simply to initiate a trend of confusion that has continued up to the present.
It is true that when compared to older hokku, Shiki’s “haiku” are often shallow, and there is a particular reason for that, in fact two main reasons. First, Shiki was an agnostic. Old hokku was very much 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 look puzzled or say 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.
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 and Confucianist influences, and even a bit of animism.
There is a second and not unrelated reason for the 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 tend often to be merely two-dimensional, and lack 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 — shallow and illustrative hokku on the whole 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.
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 is so filled with 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 anger. Amazingly, most had never even heard the word “hokku” before I rasied the issue. One would have thought the anger would have been directed at those who had so misled them. But there are still no doubt those in modern haiku who cannot forgive me for pointing out that they are not successors of Bashō, and that what they had picked up from the writings of 20th-century haiku pundits had more to do with the personal preferences of those self-made “authorities” than with anything practiced prior to the 20th century.
Today — at least — people in modern haiku are at last beginning to get the message that Bashō did not write haiku, nor did all the others before Shiki. 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 haiku of Shiki.
Once people begin to realize that “haiku” is an inaccurate and anachronistic and mistaken term when applied to the hokku tradition, and once they begin to realize that what nearly all the haiku teachers and authorities of the 20th century were teaching had little to do with Bashō and the entire old hokku tradition, then they can begin to see things realistically. They can begin to learn what hokku really is, as opposed to its ersatz form, modern haiku.
Seen realistically, the modern haiku tradition in general has virtually nothing to do with all that was written prior to Shiki, or even — as we have seen — with what was written as “haiku” by Shiki himself. Any verse form that abandons Nature, that abandons the connection with the seasons, that abandons the essentials and aesthetics of the old hokku, is neither hokku nor even what Shiki meant by “haiku” when he brought it into being near the beginning of the 20th century. Instead, modern haiku is for the most part a new Western brief verse form with remarkably fluid boundaries, and should be recognized as such. The notion that it has anything to do do with Bashō or haikai or hokku other than as an offshoot created through misunderstanding and misperception of the original will finally be recognized.
I must, however, add one disclaimer. There are a few individuals in modern haiku today that do maintain some 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, influenced by Japanese haiku of the 20th century, follow aesthetics not quite those of the old hokku — there may be too much intellection or striving for “poetic” effect — and their verses tend to be 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, modern haiku in general.
As for the rest, it is as I have said. Modern haiku has in general virtually nothing in common with the old hokku but brevity, and sometimes not even that.
Now what is the point in saying all this? Is it perhaps just to irritate modern haiku enthusiasts? Not at all. The reason I take the time to write this — apart from historical accuracy — is simply that in order to learn hokku, one must distinguish it from 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.
Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse. Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?
“Zen” has several meanings. Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China and ultimately from India. That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.
In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice. But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.
When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.
In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].
It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku. It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic. We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”
Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry. It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.
One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means. It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization. So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.
What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on. The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.
Haiku today — as distinct from hokku — is another matter. There are some Zen-influenced writers of haiku, but in general modern haiku is completely removed from Zen, and in fact some writers and figures in the modern haiku community actually prefer that it be divorced completely from Zen and any kind of spirituality. In this they differ radically from present day adherents of the hokku tradition, who regard non-dogmatic spirituality as inseparable from hokku. Modern writers of hokku thus maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.
“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku. It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer. Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears. It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.
Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature. In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.
That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself. And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.
The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.” That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak. If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.
Thus in many hokku no writer is visible. There is only an experience, a “thing-event.” That is the selflessness of hokku.
In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on. In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.
The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected. With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction. That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer. A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add. And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.
Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen. There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.
This mirror mind takes us back to where we began — to Zen as meditative absorption. That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation. Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.
Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience. Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.
Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility. That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind. And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.
Hokku are very simple. They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme.
In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season. There is no added commentary or ornament.
Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible. They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing or impractical to do so. And when a writer does mention himself, he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.
By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.
The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse. But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic. It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today. The linked verse with which it was then associated was called “haikai” renga — “playful” linked verse.
Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of our hokku. The first was Onitsura (1660-1738). He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity. Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death. We can say, therefore, that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century. Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing our kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686. Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.
The kind of hokku I teach is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant. It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live by its standards, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence, and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.
I began teaching hokku on the Internet in about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had distorted and perverted its aesthetics and standards. I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.
And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.
The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts. Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and it is that which gives it its particular clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.