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.