WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Someone expressed the view to me recently that the haiku and tanka “communities” are strongly biased against any traditional approach.  By “communities,” he means of course those people who gather on the Internet or in publications to share and read and discuss those particular forms of verse.  And by “biased,” he means that those communities have a marked tendency to scorn the writing of such verses according to the traditional standards.

It is not news to me.  When I first began to tell people in the modern haiku communities that they were being misled, that Bashō and all the rest prior to Shiki did not write haiku but hokku, and that most of what is found on modern haiku sites has nothing in common with what Bashō and the others wrote but brevity, there was a furious uproar.  And some of those most upset were those, like William Higginson, who had managed to construct little nests for themselves high in the diminutive tree of the modern haiku hierarchy by putting themselves forward as authorities.

The observant quickly learn, however, that in the field of modern haiku there are authority figures, but not genuine authorities.  There is a site on the Internet, populated by a very small number of people, calling itself the “Haiku Foundation.”  It now has a forum where newcomers may come and ask questions of “mentors,” who, to judge from the answers given, are simply making it up as they go along, because the essence of modern haiku is doing whatever one wishes to do, writing however one wishes to write.  There are no universal standards in modern haiku other than perhaps brevity and the avoidance of universal standards.

That is a far cry from the hokku, which had and still has very definite standards of form and aesthetic.

Returning to the statement that such groups are biased against traditional approaches, one finds that only confirmed in the steadfast opposition of modern haiku groups to any return to the traditional hokku.  And opposition always follows a fixed, almost ritualistic pattern.  It is the same outcry today as it was many years ago when I first began telling the then-existing modern haiku groups that they had it all wrong and were on the wrong road if they wished to be considered in the same lineage as the old hokku writers of Japan.  Their standard response was, “You cannot tell me how to write!  Poetry must be free, and I’ll write haiku however I want to write it!”

Of course this is a very confused objection.  To write hokku in essentially the traditional manner has nothing to do with limiting poetry; it only limits one to calling a thing by its real name.  And even that is something to which modern haiku groups have a great aversion — note how they persist in incorrectly and anachronistically calling pre-Shiki hokku “haiku,” as though doing so somehow justifies the modern mediocrities they write while claiming to follow in Bashō’s wake.

It is sheer pretention and obfuscation that makes the modern haiku enthusiasts take up the irrelevant refrain that there should be no limits on poetry.  That is a cry as old as William Blake, who wrote, correctly, that “Poetry Fetter’d Fetters the Human Race!”

Limiting poetry is not the issue.  No one is telling them they cannot write poetry of any kind or level whatsoever.  The real issue at hand is whether the bulk of modern haiku is verse in the same tradition as that of Bashō and Gyōdai and Buson and all the rest, and I say it is not.  It is, instead, a mid-20th century creation of Western writers who misperceived and misunderstood the hokku when they first encountered it in translation, and consequently re-made it according to their own misconceptions.

The modern English-language haiku  was born at roughly the same time that circumstances were moving toward the outbreak of the Vietnam War.  And those who created it — the writers in printed anthologies, the self-made pundits like Higginson — did not follow the aesthetics and techniques of the old hokku or even of Shiki’s conservative innovation the “haiku” (which was still hokku in all but name).  Instead they created the modern haiku according to the principles and presuppositions popular in 20th-century Western poetry in the first half of the 20th century.  That is why one often finds elements characteristic of modern haiku that were long ago considered to be “new” in the verses of poets such as Cummings, but that are now as much a part of the past as the dial telephone.

It is important to repeat that the modern haiku enthusiasts mistake the issue.  It is not whether one is to write poetry however one wishes.  All are free to do that.  It is whether one is going to call something by its correct name so that it may be defined and understood.

That is a simple matter.  If one goes to a bakery and requests a loaf of bread but is handed a chocolate eclair instead, one need only tell the baker that there is a mistake, that what was desired was a loaf of bread.  But a problem arises if the baker replies, “Oh, this is a loaf of bread!  We just choose to make it differently, because of the freedom inherent in baking!”

We would consider such a person an intolerable fool, and so should we consider those who say, “Oh, a haiku is just a hokku under another name.  Haiku is the NEW name for it, and we can write it however we wish now.”

If one wants a loaf of bread, the phrase “loaf of bread” has to have a definite meaning.  It cannot signify a chocolate eclair or a pizza or a doughnut with sprinkles. The fact that all contain flour does not make them the same thing.  Nor does the simple fact that both modern haiku and all the verses written as hokku before Shiki are brief mean that modern haiku are in the same lineage as the old hokku, or even in the same lineage as Shiki’s understanding of the haiku.

Modern haiku today is essentially a little free-verse poem, generally without rhyme and often without meter, in (usually) three lines.  That it is called a “haiku” is simply an historical oddity.   It should not imply that the modern haiku and what Shiki knew as the haiku are in any way the same, just as a pizza is not a loaf of bread, though they have flour in common.

Since at least the 1960s, the modern haiku communites have been busily working the destruction of the haiku both by scorning the traditions of the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku, and by continually changing the manner in which modern haiku is written by personal whim, so that today a modern haiku is often just an appalling little mediocrity created to make this or that bored housewife or failed academic think he or she is a “poet.”  It is not the haiku of Shiki, nor is it the hokku that existed in the centuries prior to Shiki, nor is it the hokku written today in modern English.

It surprises some people when I tell them that Shiki’s “haiku” was largely a propaganda campaign, and that what he wrote was essentially still hokku.  His verses, for the most part, still had Nature and the place of humans within Nature as their subject matter, and they were still, for the most part, set in the context of a particular season.

Modern haiku is often not about Nature and the place of humans within Nature.  It is often not set in any seasonal context.  And it frequently introduces elements not only unacceptable to the hokku and the traditional haiku (Shiki’s haiku), but also antithetical to it, such as romance, sex, violence, and modern technology.

All of this of course does not mean that anyone is prevented from writing brief verses about romance, sex, violence, and modern technology not set in any particular season and not focused on Nature and humans within Nature.  It just means that such verses are not in the old hokku tradition that preceded Shiki, and they are not in the hokku tradition of Shiki.  Instead they are new Western verse in the “tradition,” if one can call it that, of those who misconstrued and misunderstood both the hokku and Shiki’s haiku in the middle of the 20th century, and one wishes that all would simply recognize that fact and stop pretending that they have anything to do with either the old hokku tradition of Japan or the kind of haiku advocated and written by Masaoka Shiki around the beginning of the 20th century.

There are those in the modern haiku communities who advocate dropping the term “haiku” for the modern pseudo-hokku and pseudo-haiku verses commonly now called “haiku.”  Well, it might as well happen, because modern haiku has thoroughly self-destructed by its refusal to accept the standards of the lineage it claims to follow.  Now that it has pushed the “hokku” name from public notice and has thoroughly discredited the “haiku” name, it might as well move on, having destroyed what it was claiming to promote.

Modern haiku in English is not taken seriously today by anyone except those few who write and read it.  The old hokku, however, whether mislabeled “haiku” or not, continues to demonstrate, even if in translation, the virtues of the old tradition for anyone who has eyes to see and the poetic sense to understand.

David

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