It is unfortunate that when Reginald H. Blyth wrote his series of volumes extolling and
explaining what were, for the most part, verses of hokku, he made the mistake of using the revisionist term then popular in the Japan of his day — “haiku.” But of course for most people in those times, there was no obvious difference; the majority still followed the conservative “Shiki” kind of “haiku” that simply adopted the aesthetics of the old hokku, if somewhat diluted. There were already some radicals who had made drastic changes, but those radicalisms were not favored by most ordinary people.
Today, however, the situation is very different. In the West modern haiku has largely abandoned the aesthetics of the old hokku, so that today haiku is justifiably called by a different name. But the mistake is often made of thinking that the modern haiku is simply a continuation and a replacement of the old hokku, and that is completely wrong.
Modern haiku is in fact largely the creation of those Westerners in the 20th century — particularly in the latter half of the 20th century — who separated the haiku from the traditional hokku aesthetics practiced by Bashō and all the other writers in the centuries prior to the revisionist changes of Shiki, which began near the end of the 1800s. Modern haiku is, then, largely the result of Westerners misperceiving and misunderstanding the hokku in terms of what they already knew — the aesthetics of Western poetry.
The aesthetics of the hokku are quite different. The advocates of modern haiku were, in many cases, quite unaware of those aesthetics, and the few who did have some inkling of them either ignored or willfully abandoned them. Consequently, today the hokku and the haiku are for the most part two very different kinds of verse, even though superficially they appear similar; both are brief, both are generally written in three lines. That is often the only thing they have in common.
That is why it is so outrageous when a widely-used Internet source such as Wikipedia defines hokku thus:
“…the latter term [haiku] is now generally applied retrospectively to all hokku appearing independently of renku or renga, irrespective of when they were written. The term hokku continues to be used in its original sense, as the opening verse of a linked poem.”
In other words, they want the unwary reader to believe that the hokku has simply been re-named “haiku” in all cases where it is not used specifically to mean the first of a series of linked verses. According to that notion, all hokku not linked to other verses somehow automatically become “haiku.” But that is quite mistaken and inaccurate. How did such gross misunderstandings arise?
They began with the accumulation and piling of error on error. Sadly, some of these misunderstandings can be traced to Western readers who came upon the volumes of R. H. Blyth.
Blyth’s original purpose in writing was to explain the aesthetics of the hokku to Westerners completely ignorant of it, and he illustrated those aesthetics by translations that were sometimes glosses that went beyond or modified what was actually written in the originals. His intent was good; he wished to convey aspects of hokku that a Japanese reader would automatically understand, but which a Westerner would simply not “get” if the verse were translated literally and left at that.
Here is a typical example. A female student of Bashō (Chigetsu) wrote the following hokku, which I will give in both transliteration and my literal translation:
Yamazakura chiru ya ogawa no mizuguruma
Mountain-cherry falls; stream’s waterwheel.
That’s it. No wonder Blyth felt more was needed for a Westerner to even begin to understand this verse. So Blyth glossed it as:
Mountain cherry petals
Fall and scatter
Over the water-wheel of the brook.
That certainly conveys what a Japanese reader would get from the original, because Japanese hokku has a long history of requiring something more of the reader — the ability to make an intuitive poetic leap. Blyth has simply supplied all the words in his English version that a Japanese would intuit. Blyth is thus fulfilling his intent in writing — he is conveying the overall meaning of the hokku — not just what was written on the page, but also what was to be understood — intuited.
Unfortunately, readers of Blyth often assumed that because he presented the verse in a run-on sentence divided into three lines, it was perfectly all right to compose new verses using that form. But of course that was not the form of the original hokku.
That original hokku consists, as do modern hokku, of two parts, one longer, one shorter. We will better understand the form if we look at each Japanese word comprising the verse:
Yamazakura = yama (mountain) sakura (cherry) chiru (falls) ya (a cutting particle indicating a meditative pause, generally represented in English-language hokku by a semicolon or dash) Ogawa (o = small, kawa = river) no (a genitive particle equivalent here to ‘s in English, which could also function as a cutting word) mizuguruma (mizu = water, kuruma = wheel).
Blyth, again, did not indicate a separation of the two parts in his gloss because he simply wanted to convey the overall impression of the hokku, and he did so quite well. But this was all too often understood by Westerners to mean that there were not two parts to the hokku, that there was no separation. They saw Blyth’s gloss, even though divided into three lines, as one sentence:
Mountain cherry petals fall and scatter over the water-wheel of the brook.
And so came about a basic misunderstanding of the form of the hokku, which of course, following Blyth’s use of the anachronistic term, they called “haiku.” Multiply this misperception many times, and you have the beginnings of the creation of modern haiku in the West. That is why today modern haiku is in such a fragmented and disparate condition. The best verses one finds in modern haiku are often those few that are most like the hokku. But such verses are few and far between.
That is why, for the most part, modern haiku is a new Western verse form quite separate both from the old hokku and from Shiki’s original conservative haiku, which was hokku in all but name.
Getting back to our sample verse, if we were to re-write it in modern hokku form, it would look something like this:
Wild cherry blossoms –
They scatter over the water-wheel
Of the brook.
As you can see, that maintains a two-part division of the old hokku. It also has a pause, indicated in this case by the dash, separating those two parts. Modern English-language hokku is simply a continuation of the essentials of the old hokku, though with minor adaptations for a different language. That is why we can legitimately still consider modern hokku a part of the old hokku tradition; it keeps the essentials of form and the essence of the traditional aesthetic.
That cannot be said of modern haiku, which again is, for the most part, a new and separate kind of verse, though loosely based on the brevity of the old hokku. Modern haiku generally lacks the principles and aesthetics of the genuine hokku.
Incidentally, if any of you are wondering why, in the Japanese transliteration, some words appear in two forms — zakura/sakura, gawa/kawa, guruma/kuruma, then you will want to know that it is just a phonetic change that occurs when certain initial consonants are used in combinations with certain other words, and it does not indicate a change in how the word is actually written in Japanese nor any change in its meaning. I promise not to always be so detailed when discussing individual hokku, because no knowledge whatsoever of Japanese is necessary if one learns to write hokku correctly in English and other languages other than Japanese. But one must know the correct English-language form and the underlying principles and aesthetics. Otherwise what one writes is likely to turn out as “haiku” and not hokku.