Bringing the hokku back from near oblivion is a long and unsteady process. It was nearly lost completely in the 20th century. Part of that is due to historical confusion, and part is due to the misguided efforts of enthusiasts of the Western “haiku” movement, which experienced a surge of growth in the 1960s.
I have seen it all, and have watched the distinct changes in the attitude of the “haiku” movement toward hokku over the years.
First, there was refusal to even admit the existence of hokku. When I began telling people online, about 1996 — that Bashō and the rest did not call the independent brief verses they wrote “haiku,” but rather hokku, they simply did not believe me. They thought I was making it up.
A contributing factor to that ignorance was the persistent efforts of members of the Haiku Society of America to have the word “hokku” declared obsolete in dictionaries, etc. Their premise was that under their authority, everything was now “haiku,” even the centuries of hokku written before the term “haiku” began to be popularized in Japan about the first half of the 20th century. Such anachronistic historical revisionism did the recognition and survival of the hokku no good.
The next step took a long time. It is only in the last few years that people in the modern “haiku” movement began to take an interest in reviving linked verse, which was practiced in old Japan under the name haikai. But that revival created a problem for them. Suddenly the would-be revivalists were faced with the historical fact that the opening verse of a linked verse series — the beginning verse — was always called the hokku. So the modern haiku movement began using that term again, after decades of having abandoned it. But there was a catch. They began to say that yes, there really was such a thing as hokku, but it was only the first verse of a series of linked verses.
Now that, of course, is historically completely inaccurate; hokku were often written as independent verses even in the time of Bashō (mid-17th century), who also taught the use of hokku in linked verse.
Now the modern “haiku” movement is entering yet another stage. Some prominent individuals in the modern “haiku” movement are beginning to admit that, well yes, all the independent hokku written before Shiki were in fact called hokku, not “haiku.” And even more striking, they are also beginning to admit that, yes, there is a distinct difference between the old hokku and what is written as “haiku” today.
Now as long-time readers of my site know, I have been saying this for literally decades, but up to now have been a voice crying in the wilderness.
So now we are entering a new period in which some advocates of modern “haiku” (though certainly not all of them yet) are finally willing to admit not only that all the independent verses written by Bashō and others before the revisionism of Shiki around the turn of the 20th century were hokku, not “haiku,” but also that there are distinct differences between those hokku and what is written as modern “haiku” today.
Now that is a major step forward, but nonetheless, this knowledge still has not filtered down to the masses of the “haiku” movement — so it will take some time to spread — if indeed it does spread. And I must say, it should not have taken all these many years for the simple facts — which I have been stating all through that period of confusion in the “haiku” movement — to be accepted.
There is still, however, a major problem. Aside from the time it will take for this reversal in view to filter throughout the modern “haiku” community (and one hopes it will), there is still a serious ignorance — even among those “haiku” advocates recognizing and admitting the existence of the differences between hokku and modern “haiku” — of the characteristics of the genuine hokku. In other words, having accepted that hokku and modern “haiku” are two different things, those in the modern “haiku” community who have made the mental change still have no real and practical understanding of the aesthetics and techniques that make hokku what it is.
The result is that some in the modern “haiku” community are willing to admit and accept hokku as a separate category, but they think all that distinguishes it from “haiku” is that it is “about nature,” and they attribute that to the fact that hokku flourished in pre-industrial Japan — largely before the rise of modern technology there in the 19th century under Western influence.
Now to describe the difference between hokku and “haiku” as simply that the former is “about nature” while the latter need not be, has so far led — in the modern “haiku” community — only to further misunderstanding of what the hokku really is. The result is that lots of newly-written verses being called “hokku” are really nothing but modern “haiku” with a dash of “nature” thrown in.
The problem in short is that the modern “haiku” community still has no understanding of the aesthetics of the hokku, and in attempting to write what they now call hokku, they are in the position of the blind being led by the blind. Those who are instructing them do not themselves know how to write hokku. For an example of this, read the discussions and pseudo-“hokku” on this modern haiku site page:
The reason, of course, is that when the modern “haiku” movement gained speed in the mid-20th century, it set off on its erratic course without ever having understood what the inherent aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku were. Instead, as I repeatedly say, those in the movement misperceived and misinterpreted the hokku — which they called “haiku” — in terms of what they knew of Western poetry and Western poets.
That was a drastic and destructive error, because the aesthetics of the Japanese hokku at its best are quite unlike the aesthetics of the bulk of Western poetry in English and other European languages.
The result is that after all these years, aside from myself, I still do not know of anyone who teaches hokku in English according to the traditional aesthetics. That is very unfortunate and entirely unnecessary. It is certainly not to be taken as a boast, but rather as a sad recognition of how the aesthetic tradition of hokku has been largely ignored and nearly lost in the English-speaking world, due to the rise of modern “haiku” and its obscuring influence. That there should be only one teacher of traditional hokku aesthetics where there should be many teachers indicates how very far hokku yet has to go in becoming an established tradition in the West.
In saying that I am the only teacher of hokku according to traditional aesthetics that I know of at present, I must add the proviso that hokku as I teach it carries on the essence of the best of the old hokku, relying on the spirit, not just the letter. It preserves the essential hokku aesthetics and leaves aside those traits that were merely cultural or linguistic baggage, or not in keeping with the best of the hokku spirit, and so not appropriate or helpful for hokku written today in an English-language context.
Hokku, then, still has a very long way to go before it recovers from the many long years of neglect and obscurity that it has experienced in the West. Whether it will in fact survive depends on how many are able to recognize its virtues and depth in a world that is now teetering on the edge of environmental disaster.