Not long ago I wrote this:

“I began teaching hokku on the Internet in about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern ‘haiku’ — had distorted and perverted its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.”

How one comes to hokku will very often determine one’s attitude toward it.  Unfortunately the majority of people first experience it through books or sites about haiku — meaning that they get a very distorted picture of it.

As most readers here know by now, modern haiku is actually a new verse form created when Westerners, seeing the hokku for the first time, misunderstood and misperceived it in terms of what they already knew — the practice of poetry and ideas about poets current in the West in the 20th century.  Though some Westerners attempted (always unsucessfully) to imitate the hokku in the late 19th century, for all practical purposes we can say that modern haiku in America and Britain had its real beginning in the middle of the 20th century.

As already mentioned, Western haiku thus began as the unfortunate consequence of a misunderstanding.  People sometimes wonder how that was possible.  It is very simple to explain.

Here, for example, is the hokku most everyone has read in one translation or another, Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” verse:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

To a Westerner reading that verse for the first time, it seems merely a pleasant little three-line poem.  And essentially that is what Western haiku writers mistook the hokku to be — just a little three-line poem that one could write however one wished.  That is, for all practical purposes, the most practical and applicable definition of a modern haiku today.  But that is not at all what the hokku was.

First of all, the Western reader would not know that Bashō’s verse was set in a definite season — springtime.  That is indicated by the presence of a frog.  So Western readers completely missed that hokku was SEASONAL verse — each hokku being set in a particular time of the year, with all of its associations.

Because of that oversight, most Western haiku began as non-seasonal verse.  One often had no idea at all when the haiku event depicted in the verse took place.

Second, most Americans, in the middle of the 20th century were accustomed to the notion that to be “modern,” poems had to use unconventional or minimal punctuation — or even no punctuation at all, and perhaps even no capital letters.  That is because some Western poets in the first half of the 20th century had experimented with such things.  For some peculiar reason, Western haiku writers thought that was the way the haiku should be written too, in order to appear “modern.”  Thus arose the bizarre notion that punctuation was “old fashioned,” when in reality punctuation had long been used in English for clarity and for shades of emphasis — exactly the kind of thing needed if one wanted to write hokku in English.

Then too, many Western writers of haiku did not realize that the old hokku deliberately had a “cut” that divided a verse into a long part and a short part.  Those who did sense that a cut was appropriate often used no punctuation at all to indicate where it was to be in the haiku, while others simply used a perfunctory hyphen, completely missing the purpose of punctuation as we use it in the English-language hokku.

Another element often overlooked by Western writers of haiku was that the old hokku had as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently, Western writers and teachers of haiku began writing and promoting verses that had nothing of Nature in them — verses about such things as freeways and television sets and elevators.  That is completely contrary to the practice and spirit of the old hokku, but of course once Western haiku teachers began re-making the hokku as they thought it should be, they decided they could do virtually anything they wished.  That is why modern haiku is today such a garbled mess of different and often quite contradictory practices.  Anyone could teach haiku as virtually anything one decided it should be.

One of the most damaging aspects of this re-invention of the hokku as “modern haiku” was that many people thought the haiku should be a “personal expression,” which of course is another mistaken notion picked up from Western poetry and misapplied to the hokku.  Consequently people began writing haiku about love affairs, emotional entanglements, sex, war, and various manifestations of violence.

Old hokku, by contrast, deliberately avoided topics such as violence, romance, and sex.  That is because the hokku was not intended to take us deeper into emotional and psychological attachments and desires.  Of course those who read hokku, not knowing this, simply began writing about whatever they wished.

These are only a few of the serious errors that arose when Westerners misinterpreted the hokku and began to create the modern haiku according to their own whims and desires.  So almost everyone who comes to the hokku through “haiku” books and “haiku” sites is going to end up with a very distorted notion of the hokku, and will carry a heavy load of haiku nonsense baggage that prevents the understanding and appreciation of hokku as it really should be at its best.

And of course I should not finish this brief discussion without stating the obvious — that when people talk about the “haiku” of Bashō, or of Buson, or of Issa, they are speaking both anachronistically and incorrectly.  None of these writers, nor any of the other writers of the old hokku, called what he or she wrote “haiku.”  They all called such a verse a hokku, within the wider practice of haikai.  The notion that Bashō and all the rest wrote “haiku” is simply a mistake perpetuated by Western writers of haiku who appropriated a term popularized in 20th-century Japan when the country was undergoing massive influence from the West.

Haiku today, in English and in other European languages, is a garbled, confused disaster.  One can easily see the reasons for that in how it began.  And that accounts for why there are so many different opinions about how the haiku should or can be written, and so much animosity in the modern haiku community over disagreements about form and content.

It is quite unfortunate that Westerners did not take the trouble to see what the hokku was really all about before they decided to re-invent it to fit their misconceptions.  Had they begun by knowing the principles and practice and aesthetics of the hokku, it is likely that there would have been far less enthusiasm for the degenerate mutations foisted off on the public as “modern haiku,” both in the 20th century and now in the 21st.



Someone kindly sent me the link to an article by James W. Hackett on the “aesthetic devolution” of modern haiku.  No doubt the person who shared the link felt that Hackett and I perceive similar problems, though I teach hokku and Hackett is a proponent of haiku.


Hackett begins by saying that after fifty years of living and writing haiku, he is sad to witness its “devolution into aesthetic anarchy” in some haiku journals.  My view on this is that haiku quickly began its devolution into aesthetic anarchy even while Shiki was still alive in Japan — in other words, only a few years after it was begun by Shiki near the end of the 19th century.  And in the West haiku has from its inception been both vaguely-defined and confused.  Western haiku began in virtual aesthetic anarchy.

That is the result of two major factors:  First, the unfortunate widespread, anachronistic, and historically inaccurate use of Shiki’s favored term “haiku”  in the modern haiku community to describe what was really hokku.

Second, the application of the same revisionist term to what was mistakenly promoted in the West as the continuation of the old hokku tradition — all the misperceptions and misunderstandings of old hokku that were publicized in the latter half of the 20th century as “haiku” in English and other Western languages.

Hackett suggests it is time for a re-thinking and re-application of the use of the terms “haiku” and “haiku poetry,” advocating that “haiku poetry” be used instead of “haiku” to describe “literate verses that manifest writing skill, and some emotive suggestion.”

Unfortunately, that is merely stirring the mud in the pond instead of clearing the water.  What is really needed is a complete separation — first of the term “haiku” from what is really and legitimately hokku — all those verses written from the 15th century through the end of the 19th century in Japan — and secondarily a separation of  modern haiku into appropriate classifications.  Haiku has become an umbrella term so vague and inclusive as to be virtually meaningless.  There is traditional haiku — the haiku taught and practiced by writers such as Shiki and Kyoshi, and there is non-traditional haiku — all the wide variety of things called haiku today no matter how greatly they may differ from one another.

But fundamental and first is the absolute necessity of distinguishing hokku from haiku, both historically and aesthetically.  Writers should be called to account when they messily, inaccurately and anachronistically use the term “haiku” when what they are really talking about is hokku — all that was written prior to the revisionism of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — in other words, the roughly three hundred years of hokku before Shiki began misapplying the term “haiku.”

Second, I think Hackett only adds to the confusion by his suggested distinction between “haiku” and “haiku poetry.”  What he is really talking about — though perhaps he is too polite to say it — is simply verbally marking the difference between bad haiku and good haiku.  But that, if one refuses to follow historical precedents of form and content, is so subjective as to only contribute to the present chaotic situation in the modern haiku community.  Again, one must first distinguish hokku from haiku.  Second, one must distinguish traditional haiku from other kinds of modern, non-traditional haiku.  Then and only then can one begin to speak of distinctions of quality, because it is only then that one will know which aesthetic standards to apply to a given verse.

I believe Hackett also goes astray when he he writes, “the sanctity of haiku’s intuitive, emotive experience should, I believe, take precedence over theoretical considerations of form, syntax, and style.”

Well, that is what already has happened in modern haiku, and it has proven itself to be part of the problem instead of the solution.  It is precisely because Western poets and do-it-yourself haiku pundits did not understand the theoretical considerations of form  in hokku, combined with their near complete misreading of its aesthetics, that  the mess that is modern haiku came to be.

Without dealing with each point he makes, it is worth saying that Hackett and I do share certain views, though he advocates haiku and I hokku.  We both, for example, recognize the value of punctuation and of normal English usage.

Yet aside from what we share, I do not think Hackett’s suggestions go to the root of the problem, and I feel quite sure that they will not make the slightest impact upon the confused and contradictory and endlessly ephemeral aesthetics of the modern haiku movement.

Hackett is, essentially, an advocate of a view of haiku that those in the modern haiku movement will immediately consider old-fashioned and outdated — a haiku that is closer in nature to the practice of hokku.  But  instead of taking the logical step and simply returning to the practice and aesthetics of hokku, Hackett instead seems bent on attempting the impossible — reversing the course of haiku today, of what it has become after over half a century of confused and contradictory standards imposed upon a naïve public by the American and British pundits of haiku in the 20th century — standards which reflected only their misunderstandings and misperceptions of the old hokku translated into an aesthetic framework borrowed largely from Western avant-garde poetry in the 20th century — a framework that is now itself viewed as dated and old-fashioned.

Hackett would seemingly like to turn back time to an illusory “golden age,” the days when haiku was first beginning in the West, but even in those first days the Western concept of haiku was so confused and subjective that one has to say there never has been a decline of haiku in the West because, aesthetically speaking, haiku never rose in the West.  It began and it is likely to end simply as a Western misunderstanding of the far superior (in my view) hokku form and aesthetic.

As I have pointed out many times, haiku began as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku, and it has continued as such, evolving and fragmenting continually.  There is no point in trying to put the pieces of Humpty-Dumpty together again.  Haiku has moved on.

I think Hackett has his heart in the right place, but he does not recognize the fact that the house has already burnt down.  It is too late to be installing fire alarms.  Western poets and haiku pundits created a Western haiku that was individual and subjective in standards and aesthetics, and what we are seeing — and what Hackett deplores — is simply the continuation and working out of that paradigm.  It is sad, because Hackett sees the negative results but fails to deal with the root of the problem.  And the root of the problem is simply that haiku in the West has always been a misperception and misunderstanding of the hokku.

The solution, then, is not to try to change modern haiku, which is what it is.  Instead one need only return to the genuine principles and aesthetics of the hokku.

It makes me very glad that I teach hokku, which though very old in form and aesthetics is nonetheless very contemporary because it is based on timeless standards and universal principles.  It is not blown about by every wind of trend and fashion, as is modern haiku.  Haiku changes its aesthetics to fit the individual; hokku changes the individual to fit its aesthetics.  When one understands the meaning of this, one understands the foundation of hokku, whether old or modern.