New readers here may wonder why I call the old verses written by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and all the rest of the gang hokku, while elsewhere they are often called “haiku.” There are two main reasons for that, the second even more significant than the first:
1. All of the old Japanese writers prior to the end of the 19th century called such verses hokku, so “haiku” is both historically incorrect and anachronistic.
2. “Haiku” is a word that has become so widely applied to a number of disparate kinds of verse that,unlike the old hokku, to use it is merely to confuse the reader.
If you have any doubts about #2, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years) covering the last century (somewhat haphazardly) in the history of the Western haiku (not hokku) movement. When you see everything from a short poem by Ezra pound to one-line and even one-word poems called “haiku,” it is obvious that the definition of “haiku” has changed drastically. One amateur reviewer, after reading the book, wrote, “The book almost gives the impression that haiku has devolved.” What we can definitely say is that the definition of haiku has become unmanageably vague and various.
Westerners seem to have been confused by the hokku from their first exposure, and re-made it according to their preconceptions derived largely from English-language avant-garde poetry in the first half of the 20th century. The modern “haiku” movement that began in the latter half of the 20th century is largely the consequence of that.
The bulk of modern haiku no longer have a connection with the season, which was essential in hokku. Many also no longer have a connection with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, again an essential of the old hokku. Often, modern haiku emphasize the ego of the writer, something avoided in hokku. And one can find many other differences between hokku and all that is called “modern haiku” today.
So, to avoid that labyrinth of confusion, I use only the historically-correct term, hokku, and I use it only for those verses that maintain the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku, the connection with Nature and the seasons, with simplicity and selflessness. I regard hokku and modern haiku as two very different things that should never be confused.
Here is an old hokku by Bashō. As you see, it is written for a particular season, and it has as its subject matter Nature (and the place of humans within Nature):
Cold rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.
In the old original, it is in transliteration:
Shigeruru ya ta no arakubu no kuromu hodo
Shigeruru means the cold rains that come in the late autumn through early winter are falling. Ya is a cutting word, used to give the reader a meditative pause in which to feel and see the early winter rain. Ta no arakubu — “field’s stubble” means the short stubble left in the fields after the harvest. And arakubu no kuromu hodo means “enough (hodo) to blacken (kuromu) the “new” stubble (ara-kubu).
Even though this verse is over three hundred years old, it could have been written as a new hokku now, this very day. That is how close modern hokku is in spirit to the old hokku tradition, in great contrast to the multiplicity of form and content found in modern haiku.