Not long ago I wrote this:

“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.”

How one comes to hokku will very often determine one’s attitude toward it.  Unfortunately the majority of people first experience it through books or sites about haiku — meaning that they get a very distorted picture of it.

As most readers here know by now, modern haiku is actually a new verse form created when Westerners, seeing the hokku for the first time, misunderstood and misperceived it in terms of what they already knew — the practice of poetry and ideas about poets current in the West in the 20th century.  Though some Westerners attempted (always unsucessfully) to imitate the hokku in the late 19th century, for all practical purposes we can say that modern haiku in America and Britain had its real beginning in the middle of the 20th century.

As already mentioned, Western haiku thus began as the unfortunate consequence of a misunderstanding.  People sometimes wonder how that was possible.  It is very simple to explain.

Here, for example, is the hokku most everyone has read in one translation or another, Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” verse:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

To a Westerner reading that verse for the first time, it seems merely a pleasant little three-line poem.  And essentially that is what Western haiku writers mistook the hokku to be — just a little three-line poem that one could write however one wished.  That is, for all practical purposes, the most practical and applicable definition of a modern haiku today.  But that is not at all what the hokku was.

First of all, the Western reader would not know that Bashō’s verse was set in a definite season — springtime.  That is indicated by the presence of a frog.  So Western readers completely missed that hokku was SEASONAL verse — each hokku being set in a particular time of the year, with all of its associations.

Because of that oversight, most Western haiku began as non-seasonal verse.  One often had no idea at all when the haiku event depicted in the verse took place.

Second, most Americans, in the middle of the 20th century were accustomed to the notion that to be “modern,” poems had to use unconventional or minimal punctuation — or even no punctuation at all, and perhaps even no capital letters.  That is because some Western poets in the first half of the 20th century had experimented with such things.  For some peculiar reason, Western haiku writers thought that was the way the haiku should be written too, in order to appear “modern.”  Thus arose the bizarre notion that punctuation was “old fashioned,” when in reality punctuation had long been used in English for clarity and for shades of emphasis — exactly the kind of thing needed if one wanted to write hokku in English.

Then too, many Western writers of haiku did not realize that the old hokku deliberately had a “cut” that divided a verse into a long part and a short part.  Those who did sense that a cut was appropriate often used no punctuation at all to indicate where it was to be in the haiku, while others simply used a perfunctory hyphen, completely missing the purpose of punctuation as we use it in the English-language hokku.

Another element often overlooked by Western writers of haiku was that the old hokku had as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently, Western writers and teachers of haiku began writing and promoting verses that had nothing of Nature in them — verses about such things as freeways and television sets and elevators.  That is completely contrary to the practice and spirit of the old hokku, but of course once Western haiku teachers began re-making the hokku as they thought it should be, they decided they could do virtually anything they wished.  That is why modern haiku is today such a garbled mess of different and often quite contradictory practices.  Anyone could teach haiku as virtually anything one decided it should be.

One of the most damaging aspects of this re-invention of the hokku as “modern haiku” was that many people thought the haiku should be a “personal expression,” which of course is another mistaken notion picked up from Western poetry and misapplied to the hokku.  Consequently people began writing haiku about love affairs, emotional entanglements, sex, war, and various manifestations of violence.

Old hokku, by contrast, deliberately avoided topics such as violence, romance, and sex.  That is because the hokku was not intended to take us deeper into emotional and psychological attachments and desires.  Of course those who read hokku, not knowing this, simply began writing about whatever they wished.

These are only a few of the serious errors that arose when Westerners misinterpreted the hokku and began to create the modern haiku according to their own whims and desires.  So almost everyone who comes to the hokku through “haiku” books and “haiku” sites is going to end up with a very distorted notion of the hokku, and will carry a heavy load of haiku nonsense baggage that prevents the understanding and appreciation of hokku as it really should be at its best.

And of course I should not finish this brief discussion without stating the obvious — that when people talk about the “haiku” of Bashō, or of Buson, or of Issa, they are speaking both anachronistically and incorrectly.  None of these writers, nor any of the other writers of the old hokku, called what he or she wrote “haiku.”  They all called such a verse a hokku, within the wider practice of haikai.  The notion that Bashō and all the rest wrote “haiku” is simply a mistake perpetuated by Western writers of haiku who appropriated a term popularized in 20th-century Japan when the country was undergoing massive influence from the West.

Haiku today, in English and in other European languages, is a garbled, confused disaster.  One can easily see the reasons for that in how it began.  And that accounts for why there are so many different opinions about how the haiku should or can be written, and so much animosity in the modern haiku community over disagreements about form and content.

It is quite unfortunate that Westerners did not take the trouble to see what the hokku was really all about before they decided to re-invent it to fit their misconceptions.  Had they begun by knowing the principles and practice and aesthetics of the hokku, it is likely that there would have been far less enthusiasm for the degenerate mutations foisted off on the public as “modern haiku,” both in the 20th century and now in the 21st.




Here is a repeat of something I wrote some four years ago:

As readers have noticed, I like to teach using old hokku as examples — good old hokku for the most part, unless I am pointing out how not to write.

It is fortunate that hokku translate well; so well, in fact, that often the English translations are better as verses than the Japanese originals.  There are commonly poems so wedded to the original language that when translated they lose all energy and go flat.  Hokku are not like that.  The reason, no doubt, is that the effect of hokku is in the presentation of a strong sensory experience.  The emphasis is on substance over form, and hokku do not rely on such things as rhyme or even a stable rhythm, though of course in the original language of old hokku there tends to be a standard pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units, the result being a rhythm like that of the following lines, used purely to demonstrate that rhythm:

Would you like to go?
If I wanted I could go —
But I cannot now.

In other words, it has beats like this:


Of course such inherent rhythm is lost when hokku change language:

This road —
No one is on it;
The autumn evening.

That gives us this pattern of beats:


So it is a fact that in English we give little importance to retaining the 5/7/5 rhythm of the originals, because it would severely limit transmitting the verbal meaning in translation and it would have severe creative limits in composing original verses in English.  But we can say that once that original 5/7/5 rhythm standard is dropped, hokku generally transmit easily from language to language.

This ease with which hokku move from one language to another has, however, a drawback.  It is the same problem found in unstructured poetry in general, no matter how many lines may comprise it.  While the experience of reading a particular hokku may be memorable, the actual words are not.  It is in fact such “superfluities” of poetry as rhyme, rhythm, meter, alliteration and assonance that make a poem easy to remember.  This one drawback of hokku, if we may call it a drawback, may in fact be a major reason why hokku have so far not been taken very seriously in the English language, aside from their brevity and the unfortunate mediocrity that forms the bulk of what has come to be known as “haiku” in the English-speaking world.

Harold Henderson, in his An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday & Company, 1958), actually translated old hokku as rhymed verse.  We can see in his translations the benefits and hazards of trying to do so:

How cool the breeze:
The sky is filled with voices —
Pine and cedar trees.

That is easy to remember because of the rhyme — much easier in fact than a more literal rendering:

A cool breeze;
The sky is filled with
The sound of pines.*

As Henderson’s translations show, rhyming hokku generally requires a certain distortion of the original.  Commonly words must be added that go beyond the original meaning.  And Henderson found he could not translate all hokku — even his favorites — into rhyme, as is evidenced by the numerous examples of unrhymed hokku in his book for which no suitable rhyme was found.  That is no doubt one reason why, in later writing on the subject, Henderson abandoned rhyme, which was, after all, originally merely an attempt to make hokku look more like traditional English-language poetry.

But hokku, as I have often said, is not really poetry as we commonly think of it.  And specifically, it is not a poetry of the mouth or the ear.  It is, rather, a verse of the eye.  Hokku are best read silently, whereas poetry may with benefit be read aloud.

Poetry is the verse of the tongue and the ear, Cerdd Davod as it is called in that most mouth-and-ear-oriented language of poetry, Welsh — the art of the tongue, or as Twm Morys so well puts it, “tongue-craft.”

Strange to say, verse of the mouth and ear can have an effect that transcends its content, and ease of remembrance is just one aspect of that effect in which even the mediocre is remembered, and perhaps even transfigured.

That was the experience of the Welsh-language poet Twm Morys when he deliberately set out to write an example poem in English of the Welsh cywydd form.  The result was My First Love was a Plover, which Morys readily admits was simply “nonsense” written to exemplify the outer requirements of the Welsh verse form.  The form was his goal, not substance.

The result, however, was quite unanticipated.  Morys writes of it,

Now as I was the author of it, I happened to know at the time that this cywydd, though absolutely correct according to the rules of strict meter, was also a load of nonsense.  But it had an immediate, sometimes very emotional, effect on audiences.  I now realize that it is the most profound poem I have ever written.

See for yourself.  you may read My First Love was a Plover at:
Go to page 114.

After reading this verse we can easily see why the power of sound is linked with magic in old stories.  We feel the effect of spoken words transcending their literal meanings.

Where does all this leave us with hokku?  Right back with the statement that hokku is not poetry as we conventionally understand it.  Hokku is not tongue-craft but rather the recording and transmission of a sensory experience.

Is it any wonder, then, that English-language poets have paid hokku little attention,  and that what attention it has received  has been as the mutated haiku — a Western hybrid mixed with Western notions of poetry?  In hokku the substance is more important than the form, and that is why the form itself — that is the actual words — are so quickly forgotten.  In poetry the form — the words — may rise higher than the substance and the sounds of the words have an effect transcending what may be the utter simplicity of their meaning.

I know who owns these woods, but his house is in the village.  He won’t see me stopping here to watch snow fill his woods.”

That is substance over form.  It may be “poetic” in a sense, but more often it is not, and that is one reason why there are so many very mediocre “haiku” and even mediocre attempts at hokku.

But here is substance transfigured by form, though the form is simple:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

That is of course Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

All of this simply shows us once more that hokku is not poetry as we usually think of it.  What must be repeated and remembered is that in hokku, the poetry is not in the words but in the sensory experience conveyed by the words.  And like the raft abandoned when the other shore is reached, we quickly forget the words of a hokku, though not the experience.  Poetry allows us to retain the words, which may even transcend and transfigure the experience, if experience there was in fact to begin with.  Is one “better” than the other?  Better for what?

Hokku does what it is intended to do, and it does it well.  It is our problem if we persist in confusing it with poetry.  And poetry does what it is intended to do.  Poetic methods can make the mediocre memorable even when its techniques are flawed:

Wash it once,
It lasts for months,
With Duro plastic starch.

Or it can work its sound magic on the depths of human experience, as in Hopkins’ lines:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

To like hokku does not mean that we must not like poetry.  But we must be able to recognize and understand the differences between hokku and poetry or else we shall be in the same position as those multitudes in the English-language haiku establishment who long ago misinterpreted hokku as being like conventional poetry, and who then, through combining the outer form of hokku with the substance of Western poetry, erroneously created what generally passes for the English-language “haiku.”  That is an error we must not make in writing original hokku in English.


* The Japanese word koe, approximating “voice” in English, is often used in hokku where English would use “sound” or even another word such as “cry” or “chirp,” as in the koe of a cricket” or the koe of pines in the wind.