Over twenty years ago, I was dismayed by what I was seeing of the poor quality of modern haiku on the Internet. Though many were writing it, none seemed to have an understanding of how — or even if — what they were writing related to the aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku. Most had never even heard the term hokku in those days, and thought old writers such as Bashō and Onitsura had written only haiku — not realizing that haiku was just an innovation begun at the end of the 19th century, long after Bashō’s time.
In an effort to remedy that, I began teaching online the basics of writing a brief verse form in English that was more closely related to the old hokku, and better reflected its aesthetics. The approach of the modern haiku community, by contrast, was simply to write whatever one wished as haiku, regardless of subject matter or aesthetics, as long as it was brief. The old hokku connection with Nature and the seasons was largely abandoned. The result was that modern haiku became whatever a given writer chose to call haiku — which is still very much the situation today. Modern haiku has no universally accepted standards, other than perhaps brevity. It ranges from the very conservative to the extremely innovative. So “haiku” today is an umbrella term that covers a confusingly wide range of often very different kinds of verse.
It was important in avoiding confusion, to distinguish the modern adaptation of hokku I was teaching from modern haiku, so I called it what it had originally been named for the greater part of its history — hokku. I did so because what I taught was a continuation of what I felt were the best qualities of old Japanese hokku. I left needless cultural and linguistic baggage behind, and taught a hokku that bridged the gap from the old and often more complicated hokku of old Japan to the simpler needs of a modern hokku reduced to its essentials, yet still based on the best of the old aesthetics.
Over time, however, it became obvious that even the term “hokku” needed some adjustment. It could (somewhat confusingly) signify either modern verses inspired by old hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, or old hokku in Japanese. Further, what I taught expressed my view that a large part of what was included in the practice of old Japanese hokku was not, in my view, worth continuing as a modern practice in English. In earlier times there were different kinds of Japanese hokku, ranging from the very objective to the extremely subjective. My preference always tended to the more objective, which to me expressed not only hokku at its best, but also the deep roots of hokku in the aesthetic influences of Chinese Daoism and Zen Buddhism.
That is when I decided to call the modern English-language adaptation of the old objective hokku that I teach and prefer “daoku.” It clearly distinguishes that category of modern verse not only from old hokku in Japanese, but also from other modern forms of brief verse such as the varieties falling under the umbrella term “haiku.”
Occasionally, however, one might wish to write a slightly more subjective verse that shows some “thinking” instead of pure objectivity. We see that kind of “thinking” in this verse by Bashō:
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.
“Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the addition of “thinking” — a subjective interpretation or commentary on the objective first line of the verse.
For such slightly subjective verses I have adopted the name shinku, to distinguish them from the pure objectivity of daoku. The word shinku comes from a Japanese pronunciation of the old Chinese character for mind — “shin” — and the word for verse — “ku.”
Many old Japanese hokku are far too subjective — have too much thinking or intellectualizing by the writer — to fall under either of these classifications. I do not think they represent the best of old hokku, so they may safely be left to the literary history books.
When excessively subjective verses are removed, the two remaining classifications — daoku and shinku — offer a practical and convenient path forward for those wishing to follow the best essential aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku by applying them to writing new hokku for the modern English-speaking world. And of course what I say here about writing daoku and shinku in English may also generally be easily applied to writing them in other modern languages as well.
Of the two categories, my recommendation for writers is to focus mainly on daoku — objective hokku — while using shinku only sparingly.
When writing shinku, keep in mind that the subjective aspect should be slight, and it is best to generally combine it with objectivity, as we saw in Bashō’s “Octopus Traps” verse.
We see that slight subjectivity also in this spring verse by Buson:
As the petals fall,
The branches of the plum
It is not hard to see that “As the petals fall” is the objective part, and “the branches of the plum / grow older” is the subjective part — the interpretation of, or commentary on the petals by the writer.
It is sometimes more difficult to distinguish subjective and objective, as in this spring verse by Seifu:
The faces of dolls;
Without intending to,
I have grown old.
Still, we can see that “without intending to” is a bit of “thinking” added by the writer.
Verses like that of Seifu above show how one can still “tell the truth” in slightly subjective verses — and that is what we want in hokku of either kind: telling the truth, whether purely objective, or slightly subjective.