Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century. Chief among them are these:
1. The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th century wrote “haiku”:
They did not. The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki. Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku. To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing. So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.
2. The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not. The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse. Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter.
The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles. Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context. Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.
Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:
- Hokku is formulaic.
That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku. The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle. So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics. But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.
2. In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true. Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku. For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex. Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics. That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse. That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture. Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.
What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so. Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.” It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.
In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics. By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all. It is the “quick and easy” choice. However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.