We have entered autumn by the old hokku calendar — the decline of the year. Autumn is the progressive weakening and retreat of the vital forces in Nature. In old China, this weakening was called the “return to the root,” and that is precisely what we see. The sap falls in the trees, and many plants either die (if they are annuals) or the energy goes into the roots below the soil surface (if they are perennials).
In time, autumn corresponds with mid afternoon to twilight. In human life, it corresponds with the beginnings and progress of old age. It is the time of increasing loss, which is also why it is the time — in agricultural communities — for storing away food for the coming of winter. In terms of Yin (passive, cool) and Yang energies (active, warm), Autumn is declining Yang and increasing Yin.
Autumn, in hokku, is above all the time when we become aware of the impermanence of things, both in Nature and in human life. We see it in the withering of plants, in the coloring and falling of leaves, and in the change and gradually cooling of the weather.
The beginning of autumn is a good time to review some of the differences between hokku and modern haiku. Both are written today, but they generally have very different principles. I know that people involved in the modern haiku community — either directly or indirectly — come here and read my site, and sometimes it is obvious that they do not understand that hokku and haiku are fundamentally two very different things — and that it is a mistake to confuse them. If you approach hokku as though it were haiku, you will never understand it.
Haiku — though in name it began in Japan with the reforms of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — is really a modern creation. In the West, it grew out of misunderstandings of the old hokku, which was seen in terms familiar to Western poets, and viewed through the lens of Western notions of poetry. That led it off on a very different course from that of hokku, and modern haiku has continued on that somewhat erratic and rudderless course today. Haiku has become whatever an individual writer says it is — so there are many different kinds of haiku. The one constant is generally that matters such as form and content and aesthetics are left to individual choice — and that accounts for why there are different “sects” in the modern haiku community, and why “haiku” has become an umbrella term covering many disparate kinds of verse under the very wide “haiku” umbrella.
The tendency in modern haiku is for it to diverge ever farther from the hokku that originally was its inspiration, however misunderstood in the West it may have been. But given the great range of variation among modern haiku writers, there are some closer to hokku and some farther and farther away.
What are some of the differences between hokku and haiku?
First, there is the form. As we have seen, form in modern haiku varies considerably. Some use no capitalization; some use no or minimal punctuation; some vary the number of lines, or even reduce it to one word; and some — surprisingly — still follow the notion (based on a misunderstanding) that it should be written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. All of these are permissible in modern haiku.
In contemporary hokku, by contrast, the form is standardized. A hokku consists of three lines, the middle often — but not always — longer than the other two. It is divided into two segments: a longer portion of two lines, and a shorter of one. The shorter segment may come either at the beginning or the end. The two segments are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark (not just a hyphen, as is often done in modern haiku). The hokku also ends with appropriate punctuation. This standardized form works very well, and makes controversy over form quite unnecessary.
A significant difference between hokku and modern haiku is that much of the modern haiku community pays little or no attention to season. In hokku season is crucially important. Every hokku is written in one of the four seasons, and is also to be read in that season. Summer hokku are not written in winter, nor are winter hokku written in some other season. That practice helps to keep the writer constantly in touch with Nature and the changing seasons. Old hokku used specific season words, but that practice became eventually so complicated that it took years for a learner to master it — which is really contrary to the simplicity of hokku. In modern hokku, we simply head every verse with the season in which it is written, like this:
That way, when hokku are read or shared or anthologized, one always knows the appropriate season for each verse.
Related to the difference in use of season between modern haiku and hokku is the great difference in attitude toward Nature. In hokku, Nature is all important. The very definition of modern hokku is that it has as its subject matter “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, seen in the context of the seasons.” Modern haiku, however (except for the more conservative segments), may abandon Nature entirely, resulting in verses about modern technology and many other topics quite contrary to hokku’s focus on Nature.
Then there is the matter of topics. Modern hokku is a form of contemplative verse, the result of its very old influences from Buddhism and Daoism, which continue today as non-dogmatic spirituality. That means it avoids topics that trouble or disturb the mind, such as romance, sex, and violence. Modern hokku also has a decided preference for verses written from actual experience, whereas in modern haiku, verses are frequently composed entirely from the imagination of the writer — resulting in haiku that are completely “fictional,” including even haiku about science fiction.
In hokku, however, it is preferred to put aside the intellect as much as possible. That is why modern hokku are generally quite objective (the term used for such objective hokku is “daoku”). In hokku we also tend to avoid the use of ego terms such as “I,” “me,” and “my,” except when doing so is impractical. The point of this is to get the writer out of the way so that Nature may speak. In modern haiku, by contrast, there is often an emphasis on the individual writer — and on the writer as “poet.” In modern hokku we generally do not refer to the writer of hokku as a “poet,” nor do we refer to hokku as “poetry,” because both terms — given their Western meanings and frequent subjectivity — are very misleading when applied to hokku. Where in hokku the objective is generally favored (the omission of the writer’s comments and opinions about the subject) — taking the emphasis off the writer — modern haiku often favors the subjective (including the writer’s thoughts and commentary about the subject).
Now as mentioned, there are some conservative segments of the modern haiku community that are closer to hokku in some respects, and some very experimental segments that are quite far from it. I noted in a recent book review that one modern haiku writer advocates a return to spirituality, which is something a large segment of the modern haiku community had long discarded — though it has always been a part of modern hokku. And that writer (Gabriel Rosenstock) also advocated a “disappearance” of the ego — which is quite in keeping with the hokku attitude. How these manifest in writing, however, often still reveals significant differences between the aesthetics of contemporary hokku and even the more conservative segments of modern haiku.
Here we can look to the old biblical adage, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” It is not just through the differences or similarities in principle that we distinguish modern haiku from hokku, but also in practice — in the aesthetics of the verse on the page. Modern haiku — in spite of some occasional similarities to hokku — generally lacks the deeper aesthetic background that contemporary hokku has inherited from old hokku — something that was lost when hokku was re-interpreted by Western poets in terms of what they already knew of Western poetics, resulting in the more profound aspects of hokku being abandoned, misunderstood, or ignored as modern haiku developed.
Because of its definite principles and aesthetics, hokku takes time and patience to learn, even though it is ultimately quite simple. Modern haiku is generally considered an “instant” kind of verse that anyone can quickly learn to write. Because of that, and because of its rather open boundaries, many choose to write haiku. Also, there is the obvious fact that modern haiku is far better known than hokku. Many people have never heard of the hokku. When I first began teaching it years ago, it was common for people in the modern haiku community to express complete disbelief when I told them that Bashō and Buson and the rest of the old Japanese writers wrote hokku, not “haiku.” And there was a time in the 20th century when the Haiku Society of America actually wanted writers of dictionaries to declare the word hokku obsolete.
That confusion still exist today, with some in the modern haiku community defining hokku as the “first verse of a series of linked verses,” completely ignoring the fact that hokku were often written independent of linked verse even in the days of Bashō.
Whether to write hokku or haiku comes down, like many things, to simply a matter of personal preference. Not everyone has the “hokku spirit” and appreciation of Nature that hokku requires. Some simply wish to “express themselves,” and modern haiku is a much more fitting means to that end than hokku, which has just the opposite goal: to get the writer out of the way, so that Nature may speak.
For those, however, who want to continue on the old path, writing of Nature and the changing seasons and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, hokku is ideal.