Now that we are about to enter the year 2020 (yikes! — is it that late?), it is probably a good time to talk about why the peculiar fellow who runs this blog site keeps talking about “hokku,” when most people are talking about something called “haiku” (if they are talking about either at all).

Well, as those of you who have been readers here a long time know, in my mind hokku (the name of the verse form for centuries) and “haiku” (the name some Japanese people began giving to hokku around the turn of the 20th century) –have developed over time into two very different things.

We can clearly see the difference if we look at some very blunt statements made in a little essay by Haruo Shirane, a scholar and an advocate of modern haiku.  You will find the whole text here, if you wish to read it:

Shirane writes:

Topics such as subways, commuter driving, movie theaters, shopping malls, etc., while falling outside of the traditional notion of nature, in fact provide some of the richest sources for modern haiku, as much recent English-language haiku has revealed, and should be considered part of nature in the broadest sense.

From the hokku perspective, I find this appalling.  It expresses essentially the same controversial view that arose after the founding of the Haiku Society of America in the 1960s, and it caused a sharp controversy then between Harold Henderson — who wrote one of the first significant English-language books on what was then called “haiku” — and another member of the society.  Henderson held the traditional position that Nature is Nature, and the other person held that anything and everything is Nature — whether a stainless steel elevator or a fighter jet.  Henderson could not and did not agree.

In my view, that anyone could or would hold such a view of Nature as Henderson’s opponent is just a symptom of how alienated the contemporary world has become from Nature.  We live in the era of creeping concrete, when shopping malls and vast housing developments are flooding over what once were meadows, fields, and forests.  We also live in a time when a great extinction of natural life — birds, beasts, insects, and creatures of all kinds — is well under way — all due to the human devaluation of Nature — or perhaps I should say, the valuation of Nature only in terms of corporate dollars.  If matters do not change, then even the extinction of human life on this planet is a possibility, given how disrupted the world climate has become — and it is only getting worse in the absence of serious efforts to slow and reverse it.

Shirane goes on to say:

However, if haiku is to rise to the level of serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have impact on other non-haiku poets, then it must have a complexity that gives it depth and that allows it to both focus on and rise above the specific moment or time. Basho, Buson and other masters achieved this through various forms of textual density, including metaphor, allegory, symbolism and allusion, as well as through the constant search for new topics. For North American poets, for whom the seasonal word cannot function in the fashion that it did for these Japanese masters, this becomes a more pressing issue, with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace, Haiku need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan.”

Well, that is modern haiku for you. This is what it has become.  By contrast, writers of hokku would not worry at all about whether it is “serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have an impact on other non-haiku poets….”  To me that seems a very academic and if I may use the term, “unspiritual” view, and not at all in the natural spirit of hokku.  A writer of hokku would not be bothered with all that, but instead would be concerned only with writing verses that are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of a particular season, and expressed simply and directly so that the reader might share the sensory, non-intellectual experience of the writer, to the greatest extent that is possible through the medium of ordinary words.

As I have written in the past, to me the fundamental essence of old Japanese hokku was revealed in the writings of R. H. Blyth, though he too used the then-current Japanese term “haiku” in writing of it.  But “haiku” today is not even what it was in Blyth’s day (the mid-1900s), and so to call the verse form “haiku” now is simply to confuse and mislead readers.  That is why I long ago returned to using the original name for the verse form — hokku — to distinguish it from the modern haiku that was developed out of it.  “Haiku,” by contrast with hokku — as we see in Shirane’s description — has departed from Nature, and has set its sights instead on being “literature,” and “with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace, [etc.]….”

In short, modern haiku seeks to become poetry like any other modern poetry, only with a bit more brevity.  That means for those who practice it as such — as I foresaw long ago — the death of the important aesthetics of the old hokku at its best.

Now by writing this, I am not saying that one should not write verses about the urban world, about subways and airports and computers and modern technology.  People are free to write about what they will.  All I ask is that these verses not be confused with the old pre-20th century hokku or with hokku as it is written today.

Now admittedly, it is more difficult to write Nature-based hokku in an urban environment.  But that should only be an encouragement for urbanites to seek a closer relationship with Nature, to search it out, whether in parks or gardens or visits to the countryside or seashore or mountains, or even in closely observing such things as a seedling sprouting through a crack in the sidewalk.  We are all creatures of Nature, and the more divorced we are from it, the more unnatural we become.

When Shirane says, “Haiku need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan” — he is giving a very accurate picture of modern Western haiku as opposed to hokku.  But in hokku, the “ground rules” are not completely different from what they were in Japan. Instead, hokku keeps the spirit rather than only the letter of old hokku.

It is true that writers of hokku no longer use specific “season words,” but those are replaced quite well by seasonal categorization in hokku.  Every verse falls under the heading of either Spring, Summer, Fall/Autumn, or Winter.  And it is true that hokku in English does not limit itself to 17 phonetic units as was the standard (not always followed) in old Japan, but that is because grammatically the languages are quite different, and just keeping to brevity serves the purpose well while maintaining the spirit of the old verse.  It is also true that unlike some old hokku, hokku today does not use one thing to mean another, nor does it favor historical or literary allusions, but that is quite in keeping with the essence of the best old hokku.  A Japanese today would not find the aesthetics of contemporary hokku out of keeping with the best of what was written two or more centuries ago in Japan.

I have been advocating the revival of the old hokku aesthetics for well over two decades now, but it takes a particular kind of person to appreciate and to write hokku.  In contrast to Shirane, I do not even like to use the term “poetry” in describing hokku, because at its best, it is so completely unlike what most people consider to be poetry in the West.  In fact it was the confusion of the aesthetics of the hokku with those of Western poetry (particularly English-language poetry) that led to the misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku that gave rise to the modern English-language “haiku” movement in the 1960s — and as we see from Shirane, the situation has only worsened since then.  From the point of view of hokku and its aesthetics, modern haiku is a degeneration of that which originally inspired it.

Now I know I have a number of regular readers here who nonetheless write modern haiku, and that is fine, as long as they do not confuse what they write with hokku.  All I ask of them is that if they are writing haiku, using the loose standards of haiku, then call it haiku — and if writing hokku, using the definite aesthetics of hokku, then call it hokku (but be sure that is what you are writing!).  Writing hokku is, in my view, much more challenging than writing haiku, and requires quite a different spirit and attitude toward life and Nature.  Please do not mix the two terms, because  — I repeat — they now generally refer to two very different things.

If anyone has any questions about all this, I would be happy to answer them.




4 thoughts on “AT YEAR’S END

  1. Ashley

    Thank you again David, for this wonderful blog! Clear and honest thoughts! Wishing you a happy, healthy and peaceful 2020.

  2. I came of age when haiku was all the rage. My friends and I knew nothing about examples that focused on modernity or urban life, but we did assume haiku should describe some inner feeling, some aspect of personal identity, which we “expressed” by using something in nature as the symbol or vehicle. This was entirely consistent, of course, with our age, so self-conscious and self-absorbed. I also remember the distraction of counting the syllables to ensure they would be no more and no less than 17 — a focus that utterly destroyed our contemplation of the meaning, sound, subject, anything. No wonder we soon got tired of the new toy.

    I am so grateful I discovered your blog and books later in life and learned what traditional hokku is and how its essential elements work. I never get tired of hokku or your guided readings year after year. They have changed the way I experience so many things: the outdoors, taking walks, the change of seasons, and small things indoors, like a summer spider spinning a web by day in a window that will be lit by night or the subtle vibration of the floorboards when a section of snow, having slid off the roof, strikes the ground.

    Thank you, David!

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