New readers here may wonder why I call the old verses written by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and all the rest of the gang hokku, while elsewhere they are often called “haiku.” There are two main reasons for that, the second even more significant than the first:

1. All of the old Japanese writers prior to the end of the 19th century called such verses hokku, so “haiku” is both historically incorrect and anachronistic.

2. “Haiku” is a word that has become so widely applied to a number of disparate kinds of verse that, unlike the old hokku, to use it is often merely to confuse the reader.

If you have any doubts about #2, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years) covering the last century (somewhat haphazardly) in the history of the Western haiku (not hokku) movement. When you see everything from a short poem by Ezra pound to one-line and even one-word poems called “haiku,” it is obvious that the definition of “haiku” has changed drastically since Shiki began using it near the end of the 19th century. One amateur reviewer, after reading the book, wrote, “The book almost gives the impression that haiku has devolved.”  What we can definitely say is that the definition of haiku has become unmanageably vague and various.

Westerners seem to have been confused by the hokku from their first exposure, and re-made it according to their preconceptions derived largely from English-language avant-garde poetry in the first half of the 20th century. The modern “haiku” movement that began in the latter half of the 20th century is largely the consequence of that.

The bulk of modern haiku no longer have a connection with the season, which was essential in hokku. Many also no longer have a connection with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, again an essential of the old hokku. Often, modern haiku emphasize the ego of the writer, something avoided in hokku. And one can find many other differences between hokku and all that is called “modern haiku” today.

So, to avoid that labyrinth of confusion, I use only the historically-correct term, hokku, and I use it only for those verses that maintain the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku, the connection with Nature and the seasons, with simplicity and selflessness. I regard hokku and modern haiku as two very different things that should never be confused.

Here is an old hokku by Bashō. As you see, it is written for a particular season, and it has as its subject matter Nature (and the place of humans within Nature):


Cold rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

In the old original, it is in transliteration:

Shigeruru ya ta no arakubu no kuromu hodo

Shigeruru means the cold rains that come in the late autumn through early winter are falling. Ya is a cutting word, used to give the reader a meditative pause in which to feel and see the early winter rain. Ta no arakubu — “field’s stubble” means the short stubble left in the fields after the harvest. And arakubu no kuromu hodo means “enough (hodo) to blacken (kuromu) the “new” stubble (ara-kubu).

Even though this verse is over three hundred years old, it could have been written as a new hokku now, this very day. That is how close modern hokku is in spirit to the basic aesthetics of the old hokku tradition, in great contrast to the multiplicity of form and content found in modern haiku.



From time to time I like to remind readers that the careless use of the term “haiku” to describe what historically is really hokku is not only anachronistic but also inaccurate and confusing.  Here is a slightly modified earlier article I posted on the topic:

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It is both interesting and useful to note that the term “haiku” did not begin to catch on in the West until the middle of the 1900s. Prior to that time, when Americans or Europeans spoke of the brief Japanese verse form, they correctly called it either “hokku” — the specific term for an individual verse — or “haikai” — the collective term for the wider practice of which the hokku was the most important part.

In 1905 the Frenchman Paul Louis Couchod, writing some verses in imitation of the Japanese, published a book titled Au Fil de l’eau, filled with verses he called haikaï.

Another Frenchman, Fernand Gregh, came up with more imitative verses titled Quatrains in the Form of the Japanese Haikaï. And yet another, Albert de Neville, wrote a collection of verses titled 163 Haikaï and Tanka, Epigrams in the Japanese Manner (I have translated these last two titles).

It is not difficult to see that the term favored in France for the Japanese hokku was the term describing the wider practice, haikai, which was also the term favored by Bashō and the other writers up to the time of Shiki, though of course the opening verse, whether it appeared alone or as the beginning of a verse sequence, was the hokku. So really either is correct. That is why today we write hokku, but it still falls within what Bashō termed haikai. Because we tend to concentrate on the individual verses, we more frequently say “hokku” than “haikai.”

These early writers and others in France give us not only what is apparently the first attempt to write the verse form in the West, but also the first examples of how Westerners completely misunderstood the hokku, interpreting it not as it was but as they thought it was. That resulted in such peculiar French pseudo-“haikai” as this 1920 attempt by Gilbert de Voisins:

Trois vers et très peu de mots
Pour vous décrire cent choses…
La Nature en bibelots.

Three verses and very few words
To describe to you one hundred things …
Nature in trinkets.

That is quite far from authentic hokku.

And Paul Eluard, writing in 1920, presents us with another verse as unlike hokku as anything one is likely to find on today’s modern haiku blogs:

Le vent
Roule une cigarette d’air.

The wind
Rolls a cigarette of air.

When we come to writers in English, we find that in spite of Basil Hall Chamberlain’s title Basho and the Japanese Poetical Epigram (1902), the favored English term for the verse form was hokku, which was precisely the correct term for such an individual verse of Bashō and the other writers in Japan.

Ezra Pound, for example, called a hokku a hokku:

The Japanese have evolved the still shorter form of the hokku.

‘The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly.’

This is the substance of a very well-known hokku.” (from Vorticism, 1914)

Pound could not tell good from bad hokku, nor did he really grasp what a hokku was as distinct from Western notions about it.

Amy Lowell wrote Twenty-four Hokku on a Modern Theme (1921). She did not understand the true nature of the hokku any better than the French or Ezra Pound, as one can see from such mutations as:

Night lies beside me
Chaste and cold as a sharp sword.
It and I alone.

Even Yone Noguchi (1875-1947), though calling what he wrote in English hokku, came up with verses as romanticized and unlike the genuine hokku as anything conceived by Americans or Europeans in the early 1900s, such as this 1920 example:

Suppose the stars
Fall and break?—Do they ever sound
Like my own love song?

Noguchi was born in Japan but spent considerable time living in the West and absorbing the “Western” concept of poetry, which was also influencing Japan at that time, and the result, as one sees from his verse, was like trying to genetically cross a dog and a cow. Noguchi evinces as little understanding of the hokku as any confused Westerner.

It is unfortunate but obvious, then, that though the writers of Europe and America were using the correct terminology for a hokku, they had no genuine understanding of what it was, as their attempts at writing show. We learn from this that simply calling a verse hokku does not make it hokku. None of these early enthusiasts writing in Western languages really had the foggiest idea how to write a genuine hokku in the tradition of Onitsura and Bashō and the other great writers of Japan prior to Shiki. But at least they got the terminology right.

So in the first part of the 1900s, Westerners knew the Japanese verse form was hokku as part of haikai, but they failed to understand what a hokku really was.

Imagine, then, how confusing it became when, in the mid 1900s, the terminology suddenly changed, when what had previously been called the “hokku,” though greatly misinterpreted, suddenly began being called the “haiku” in the English language. All the confusions and misperceptions and misunderstandings that had been placed on the hokku by American and European writers were simply transferred to a “new” anachronistic and historically incorrect term.

But how did the change in terminology come about?

It is due partly to the Japanese themselves, who in the first half of the 20th century, being overwhelmed by Western culture and technology, gradually displaced the old term “hokku” with the term used by Masaoka Shiki to describe his revised re-interpretation of the hokku form — “haiku.”

As we have seen, early writers in the West used the original and genuine term, hokku, though they had no idea what they were writing about. The public at large scarcely took notice in any case. Then in 1932 a Japanese named Asataro Miyamori came out with a large volume in English titled An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern (1932). Few in the West read it, but those who did were introduced to hokku under Shiki’s revisionist term haiku, which had by then become popularized in Japan.

Then the confusion multiplied in the West. Harold Henderson came out with his little volume of translated hokku The Bamboo Broom (1934), but also following popular Japanese usage of the time, he too called the verses “haiku,” not, as they should have been correctly termed, “hokku.” And make no mistake. Almost all the verses Henderson included were really hokku, not haiku.

But what really changed the scene was the work of Reginald Horace (“R. H.”) Blyth, who in works published between 1942 and 1963 consistently used the then-popular term in Japan — “haiku” — to describe the traditional hokku. That is not surprising, because Blyth took up residence in Japan and used the terminology popular in the Japan of his day, but it is nonetheless very unfortunate that he unwittingly contributed to misunderstanding when he worked so diligently to explain the aesthetics of what was really hokku to the West.

Because Blyth was the most prolific writer on the subject, and also by far the most widely-read and the best, the older and historically-correct term “hokku” was largely displaced in American and British understanding by the newer, imprecise, anachronistic and revisionist term “haiku.” This very confusing change of terminology in describing what was already a thoroughly misunderstood verse form in the West only created virtual chaos in the public mind.

The use of “haiku” instead of hokku was enthusiastically supported by such budding groups of Western writers as the Haiku Society of America, which often furthered the misperceptions of the verse form that had been common in the West since the days of Couchod, of Pound, and of Lowell.  The teaching of “haiku” in the 20th century tended to perpetuate such misconceptions, and that trend has continued even into the 21st century, which has only exacerbated the misunderstanding and confusion regarding hokku and haiku.

Now what does all this chaotic history mean for us today? It means simply that hokku as the verse form written from Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century up to the end of the 19th century was never really transmitted to the West. The “starter,” to use a baking term used in making sourdough bread, never “took.”

The number of persons who understand and practice the old, genuine hokku in English is today very small in comparison to the huge numbers of writers of the “haiku” in its multitude of variations. The average writer of haiku has never learned the nature and characteristics and aesthetics of the old hokku, and simply cannot recognize one as distinct from haiku. That is how thoroughly misperceptions of the old hokku have pervaded Western understanding in  the 20th and early 21st centuries.

It is true that genuine hokku may be found in the works of Miyamori, of Henderson, and of Blyth, but even these potential models — in spite of Blyth’s superb commentaries — were re-formed in the Euro-American mind to fit inaccurate Western preconceptions and personal whims.

What did appear in the West as hokku in the early 1900s and as haiku from the 1960s onward was simply a new Western verse form that embodied the Western misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku. Like Chinoiserie and Japanoiserie in art, it was a romanticized and completely inaccurate Western misperception of an Asian aesthetic matter.

That means, essentially, that all those haiku groups and literary publications that began appearing in America and Britain in the 1960s generally have no genuine connection with what was written by Bashō and Onitsura and other Japanese writers in the two-plus centuries prior to the revisionism of Shiki.  Nor, with very few exceptions, do of the vast number of “haiku” writers from the mid-20th century up to the present have any relation to genuine pre-Shiki hokku, or even with the conservative “haiku” advocated by Shiki himself, which was often just hokku under a different name.

What has happened, however, is that people have generally misinterpreted the fact that modern haiku was inspired by the old hokku as evidence that modern haiku is a continuation of the old hokku. That is like imagining that humans and chimpanzees are essentially the same today simply because they had a common evolutionary ancestor.

The haiku is not at all the same as the hokku. Instead, it developed out of the old hokku through the revisionism of Masaoka Shiki in Japan, near the end of the 19th century. And it is bizarre, to say the least, that in any modern “history of haiku,” the greater part of text is taken up in describing what is really, historically, hokku — which bears no relationship to modern haiku other than that already described — that the haiku was “loosely inspired,” as one might say, by the outward form of the old hokku. And that is really the only connection. Aside from that tenuous link, modern haiku in English and other European languages is actually a new, Western verse form created initially from misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku.

Hokku is not and never was haiku as the term is understood today, and until one understands that basic fact, one will not be able to understand the hokku or learn how to practice it.




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As I never cease repeating here, it is extremely important not to confuse hokku and haiku.  People in the modern haiku community like to say that haiku is just the “new name” for hokku.  I consider that quite mistaken.

If, for example, you write little three-line verses that are not set in a particular season, you are writing modern haiku, not hokku.  You are not even writing haiku as it was practiced by the fellow who began haiku — Masaoka Shiki.  Instead you are writing modern haiku as it is practiced by large numbers of largely self-taught people who have never understood the history and principles of the hokku, or even those of the kind of haiku Shiki wrote.  What they are writing is essentially just a little verse of some kind in three lines.

As I have said many times, even though in modern hokku we keep the essential connection with the seasons, we do not practice hokku precisely as did the old Japanese writers.  There is a very good reason for this.  In old hokku, a system of using “season words” developed.  “Season word” use was not just the indication of the season of a verse by including the name of a month or the name of a season.  It was done by using particular words that by themselves came to be understood as appropriate in hokku only to a certain season.  An obvious one, for example, was “plum blossoms” indicating a verse was a spring verse.  That makes sense.  But many season words were not obvious at all.  For example, a hokku using the term “ebb tide” was also a spring verse; so were verses using “the hazy moon.”

As you might guess, this system became very complicated, so complicated that it eventually took dictionaries of season words and years of study to learn them all and how to use them.  You might think, given that Shiki is considered the originator of the haiku, that Shiki would have simplified matters.  Actually, just the opposite is true.  As R. H. Blyth writes, “In Shiki’s monumental Complete Classified Collection of Haiku there is such an excess of system that the poetry is swamped by it.  For example, there are no less than fifty classes of fans alone.”  By “classes of fans” he means divisions of fans used as season words.  And remember, that is just fans.

Very few people writing modern haiku still use season words.  There has been, in the past few years, an effort to encourage their use among some haiku writers, and even attempts  to compile big lists of “international” season words, but the result is just to bring back the complexity that helped to spoil the hokku originally, and to make it far less spontaneous over the years.  And in any case, most modern writers of haiku do not use the season word system at all, in any form.

The problem then, is this:  If, historically, hokku has always been seasonal verse — with verses connected to and expressing particular seasons of the year — how does one practice it today without the complexity of learning huge numbers of season words, a situation made vastly more complicated now than it was even in the late days of the old hokku?  If one abandons the seasonal connection, it should be obvious that one is no longer writing hokku, but instead modern haiku.

The answer is really very simple.  We cut through the Gordian knot of the problem by simply classifying every hokku we write by the season in which it was written.  A spring hokku is marked “spring”; a summer hokku “summer” and autumn/fall hokku is marked “autumn” or “fall”; and a winter hokku is marked “winter.”  Whenever a hokku is shared or printed, that seasonal classification goes with it.

That eliminates with one blow the needless complexity old hokku developed over time, and it maintains the essential connection of hokku and the seasons that makes it hokku and not modern haiku.

Of course there are numerous other differences between hokku and modern haiku, many of which I have discussed in past postings here.  But the point I want to make today is that hokku without a seasonal connection is not hokku.   One might say that if one takes from the hokku its principles and aesthetics and standards, what is left is modern haiku, like the pulp that is left when the juice is pressed from an apple.  In hokku we want the apple, full and entire.


I often say that modern haiku, for all practical purposes, began in the middle of the 20th century as a result of the misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku by Western writers and academics.  They saw the hokku through the spectacles of what they already knew about Western poetry (particularly avant-garde poetry of the first half of the century) and notions of what it meant to be a poet, and that prevented them from seeing the hokku as it really was.

The consequence was that when Westerners began to write and teach their own interpretations of the hokku — which they called “haiku,” following Shiki’s neologism — what they created generally had little in common with the old hokku practiced from Bashō up to and including the “haiku” of Shiki except brevity.

In other words, modern haiku in English is the result of all the English-language haiku journals and anthologies and books written in the latter half of the 20th century, not the result of a careful study of the old hokku or even the first “Shiki” haiku.  It is largely a new Western verse form rather than a continuation of the old hokku.

That means, for all practical purposes, that most of what would-be writers of “haiku” were reading in the 20th century presented what was really — in my view — largely just the creation of the authors, and did not really represent the essentials of the old hokku or even of Shiki’s new “haiku.”

Of course it is obvious to historians that awareness of the hokku did not begin in the middle of the 20th century, but roughly half a century earlier, when the Western poets known as the Imagists were influenced by what they saw of the hokku in translation.  But they, too, misperceived the nature of the hokku, and their verses influenced by it are no more hokku than the Chinoiserie of 18th-century England is “real” Chinese art.

Here, for example, is an early (c. 1908) “Imagist” poem by Edward Storer, written, like the modern hokku, in three lines.  But there the similarities end:


Forsaken lovers,
burning to a chaste white moon,
Upon strange pyres of loneliness and drought.

This is simply the fantasy of the writer working overtime.  If we remember that the hokku expresses Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, we can see there is really nothing in this poem that is like the hokku except its brief, three-line form.  The content is entirely “Western poetry.”

Though the Imagists were influenced by the hokku, they completely misunderstood it; and that of course was repeated by those who actually began the modern haiku in earnest in the middle of the 20th century.

When we look at the early “pre-modern” Western poems influenced by Western misperception of the hokku, we can see precisely where the Western “poets” went wrong.  They did not understand the purpose of the hokku; they did not understand its seasonal context; they did not even understand its long-short structure.  They saw only that it was a brief presentation of an “image” of some kind, and so they proceeded to write verses such as these, by Ezra Pound.  I will present them here under my own headings:

Playing at being “Asian”:

O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.
(titled “Fan-piece: For her Imperial Lord)

Writing simile:

As cool as the pale wet leaves
of lily-of-the-valley
She lay beside me in the dawn.
(titled Alba)

Imposing inner fantasy on the outer object:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
(titled “In a Station of the Metro)

Of this latter verse, Pound wrote,

“In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”

In other words, Pound was speaking of the outward object (the faces in the Metro) transformed into an inner, subjective image (petals on a wet, black bough).  This has nothing to do with hokku, nor with the first “Shiki” haiku, which were hokku in all but name.

William Higginson completely misunderstood what Pound was doing; he wrote of this verse,

“…by revising the poem Pound turned an otherwise sentimental metaphor into a genuine haiku … This is a haiku that Shiki would have been proud to write.” (The Haiku Handbook)

In my view, it is precisely such gross misperceptions and misrepresentations of the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku by Higginson and other writers in the latter half of the 20th century that led them to create a “modern haiku” quite unlike the old hokku, and quite unlike the “Shiki” haiku.

But here is another Ezra Pound verse:

Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,
Crushed strawberries! Come, let us feast our eyes.
(titled L’Art, 1910)

This is what we might call a “color” verse, with an added comment by the poet.  Aside from the added comment at the end, it is essentially just a word-painting of color combinations.  And that, of course, takes us immediately to a very similar poem by William Carlos Williams, which again consists in essence of an assemblage of colors:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Where Pound puts his added (and superfluous) comment at the end of his verse, Williams puts his similarly superfluous comment at the beginning of the color composition to give the verse a pseudo-profundity.

Pound’s verse is simply the assemblage of green on white with strawberry red; Williams’ verse is simply the assemblage of red (enhanced by the rainwater) and white.  Yes, it is a red wheelbarrow, and yes, they are white chickens, but the objects are simply the vehicles for the transmission of color, as in the verse by Pound, in which his “Let us feast our eyes” is simply an attempt to tell the reader that his poem is all about color juxtapositions (plus the oddity of a “feast” including a poisonous pigment).

Williams’ poem is, for all practical purposes, a word-painting of colors, red and white.  Pound’s verse is also a word-painting of colors, arsenic green, white, and strawberry red.

We may recall at this point that Masaoka Shiki wrote a haiku about the falling of a red berry on the frost of the garden.  That verse is also a study in color (red on white), and seen thus it is outwardly similar to the red and white juxtaposition of Williams, with his red wheelbarrow and his white chickens.  But in this, Shiki’s hokku is atypical, though it still expresses a thing-event in the context of a season, which is not at all what the “wheelbarrow” poem of Williams does.  The principle behind them is quite different, and it was the failure to grasp this essential difference between the hokku and Western poetry that led to the rise of a modern haiku that has far more in common with Western notions of poetry and poets than it has or ever had with the old hokku or even with the “Shiki” haiku, which was still generally hokku in all but name.

And finally, if one looks at the “wheelbarrow” poem of Williams, it becomes obvious where the anti-capital letter, anti-punctuation tendency so prevalent in modern haiku originated.  It is just a relic of an experiment that was once considered “modern” — in the first half of the 20th century.



Newcomers here often wonder why I use the word “hokku” for the small “Nature” verses I often discuss.  I use that word because it is the very word that has been used to describe them for over 300 years.  It is the word used by Bashō and Gyōdai, Taigi, and Buson, and all the other writers up to the time near the end of the 19th century when a journalist named Shiki began calling what he wrote “haiku” instead, though many of his verses were still essentially hokku in all but name.

As a result, over time a lot of people began speaking of those earlier, preceding centuries of old hokku as “haiku” too.  But I do not do that, and there are very good reasons.  First, as I have already said, it is not the “real” name of the verse, not what the writers of these verses themselves called them.  But even more important, after Shiki the “haiku” began to be written in so many different ways that it grew more and more unlike the hokku.  Today the word “haiku” is just a foggy and fuzzy umbrella term used to describe a great number of kinds of brief verse.  It has become so vague as to be nearly meaningless, and it certainly does not clearly or accurately describe the kind of verses written in the centuries before Shiki, nor does it describe the hokku we write in that old tradition today.

I believe that in order to teach something, one must know precisely what one is teaching.  One must be able to describe and explain it so the student will understand.  That is why I use the historically correct term hokku to apply to the kind of verse I teach and discuss.  It is the same word that was used by all who wrote it, and I can think of no good reason to change that.  I have seen what happens when people do try to change it, and the result is just hopeless confusion.

Nonetheless, everyone knows that there is a lot of new brief verse out there that is called “haiku.”  I always tell people that hokku is NOT haiku, and historically that is quite accurate.  But more important, hokku has its own standards and principles and aesthetics.  These have been largely forgotten or abandoned by most people who write haiku.  For many of these people, haiku is just a modern brief poem about the length of a hokku, but without most or all the characteristics of a hokku.  Often a modern haiku cannot be distinguished in any way from other short poems of roughly the same length that people do not call or consider to be haiku.

To avoid all that confusion, I just keep to the original, correct term.  That saves a lot of bother for everyone.  Fortunately, hokku is also the term still used by scholars when they want to be technically correct.  So even they know that using “haiku” when what is really meant is “hokku” can be confusing.

My attitude toward modern haiku is that it began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku by Western writers who mistakenly thought the hokku was like Western poetry, just shorter.  That is why a lot of modern haiku can hardly be distinguished from other short poems that are not haiku.  Some people actually prefer this “hybrid” kind of verse, and if they do that is fine.  But I do object when they try to convince people that what they write is in the same tradition as the old hokku writers, or when they try to convince people to call hokku “haiku.”  That is simply adopting confusion instead of clarity.  Here I only teach hokku.

Of course many people who write experimental kinds of modern haiku consider the hokku, without any good reason, outdated. They think that verse forms must always be changed and transformed and turned into something else to be any good.  But I think that is a foolish notion.  If something works well at what it is supposed to do, there is no reason to change it.  And change just for the sake of change is pointless.

Of course the way we write hokku today is not exactly how the old writers did it, because they wrote in Japanese and we write in English.  But we still follow their old techniques, their old aesthetics, and we still look to Nature and the changing seasons as the focus of our verse, just as they did.  That is why we can speak of a continuity between the old hokku and new hokku.

Learning hokku is more difficult than learning haiku because one cannot just make up one’s own rules.  There are certain guidelines we should follow, or else a verse will not be a real hokku.  But once we learn the guidelines and techniques and principles, then we can begin to write with real freedom, because we will have absorbed the spirit behind all the guidelines that is the real essence of the hokku.



In previous postings I have written that the “haiku” did not exist until near the end of the 19th century, when it was “created” by a Japanese failed novelist, the journalist generally known today as Masaoka Shiki, or simply Shiki.  That is an historical fact, and easily verifiable by anyone willing to expend a minimum of effort in research.  Though the word “haiku” existed in Japanese long before Shiki, it had a different meaning than he attached to it.

What that means is that everyone — whether in books or magazines or on the Internet — who talks about the “haiku” of Bashō or the “haiku” of Buson or the “haiku” of Taigi is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically, spreading the misunderstanding and confusion that began in English and other European languages in the 20th century — particularly in the mid-20th century, when the foundational groups that gave rise to modern haiku were being formed.

It is noteworthy that one such group — the Haiku Society of America — even put out a considerable propaganda effort to convince the editors of dictionaries and other reference works to declare the term hokku “obsolete,” as though a mere handful of people forming a little club could invalidate history, making Bashō somehow a writer of “haiku” when, by contrast, Bashō always referred to what he wrote as HOKKU, within the wider context of haikai.

But I have said all that before.  What the average person needs to know now is what that change in terminology — begun by the revisionism of Shiki in Japan — means about hokku today and its relationship — if any — to haiku.

To understand that, we have to go back to the time of Shiki to see just what he did, and what resulted from what he did.  In doing so we shall dispel a bit of myth and shall remain with the facts.

What did Shiki do to hokku?  Very little, actually, but that very little was to have immense consequences.   He did precisely this:

1.  Shiki removed hokku from its centuries-long position as the first and opening verse of a haikai verse sequence, eliminating its connection with linked verse.  He did this because he did not personally consider such collaborative verses “literature.”

2.  Shiki decided to call this independent verse form “haiku,” not “hokku.”

That’s it.

Do not misunderstand this and think that Shiki created a new verse form appearing independent of linked verse for the first time.  Independent hokku were nothing even  remotely new, but really a very old practice.  In the old haikai tradition, hokku could appear in at least three ways:  As part of a haikai linked verse sequence,  or independently, or embedded in other writings such as the travel journals of Bashō.  So to say that Shiki began the practice of presenting the hokku independently is simply an error.  What we can say is that Shiki began presenting the hokku independently under his new denomination “haiku.”

So that is what Shiki did.  He made it theoretically impossible for what he called the haiku to be written in the context of a linked verse (renga) sequence, and he decided to call it something other than what its name had been for centuries.

If we look at Shiki’s own “haiku,” we find that they are really just hokku in form and content — hokku that he decided to call “haiku” for his own purposes.  Shiki’s verses are generally acceptable as hokku, which shows how little he really did and how essentially conservative his verses were.

Shiki kept the connection with Nature — essential to hokku.  He also kept the connection with the seasons — also essential to hokku.

We can say, then, that what Shiki did was, in essence, to  initiate a trend of confusion that has continued up to the present.

When compared to older hokku, Shiki’s “haiku” often seem shallow, and there is a particular reason for that, in fact two main reasons.  First, Shiki was an agnostic.  Old hokku was very influenced by the “philosophy” of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly that of the Zen sect.  That is not surprising.  Zen aesthetics are the basis of all the major traditional contemplative arts in Japan, whether hokku, the tea ceremony, gardening, flower arranging, calligraphy, even the Nō drama.  That is why if one understands the aesthetic principles behind just one of these arts, one understands them all.

In Shiki’s case, his agnosticism tended to manifest itself as a certain existential bleakness, which we find particularly in verses directly relating to his chronic illness.  Seen over the longer term, however, his agnosticism led eventually to a separation between “haiku” and spirituality, something we find emphasized in later 20th-century writers in English who declare either that there is no Zen-“haiku” connection or  that such a connection is overrated or overstated.  One often finds such writers quoting this or that modern Japanese, who when asked about the connection between “Zen” and haiku, simply looks puzzled or says there is no connection.  What does one expect them to say?  Most modern Japanese know as little about the aesthetic foundations of the old hokku as modern Americans know about the influence of the Enlightenment on the founding documents of the United States.

But the fact is that it was modern haiku that decided to separate from “Zen,” for reasons best known to those who made that decision.  Of course by “Zen” here, I mean non-dogmatic, unitary spirituality in general, and particularly the aesthetic influence of that spirituality that manifested in hokku and in Japanese culture in general.

The result, then, is that there is a large segment of modern haiku that has separated and isolated itself from spirituality.  That is a notable difference from the old hokku, in which its aesthetics were a manifestation of the underlying foundation of Mayahana Buddhism, including as well Daoist, Confucianist, and even a bit of animism.

There is a second and not unrelated reason for the seeming shallowness of many of Shiki’s hokku.  Shiki was strongly influenced by the Western literary and technological innovations that were flooding into Japan in his time.  One of these was the plein-air art of Europe, nature sketches “from life,” so to speak.  It made such a great impression on him that he took it as the guiding motif for the new “haiku,” and called it shasei, sketching from life.

The result was that many of Shiki’s “haiku” are essentially illustrations in words, brief word-sketches of this or that scene.  As such, they sometimes tend to be merely two-dimensional, lacking the depth and profundity of the old hokku, which had a wider aesthetic.  I often say that many of Shiki’s hokku are like the style of block prints made popular by such Japanese artists as Yoshida and Hasui — pleasant enough in their own way, but still illustrations.

In spite of that, if his changes had not been taken farther by those who came after him, we would still consider much of what Shiki wrote to be hokku — often somewhat shallow and illustrative hokku perhaps, but still not radical enough to remove him entirely from the category.  We would see him as just another writer of hokku, but with a peculiar personal aesthetic.

That brings us to Shiki’s real significance in this matter.  Shiki questioned the old hokku tradition and its values, but aside from imposing his own title “haiku” on it, he remained, as we have seen, rather conservative.  But the mere fact that he felt enabled, as an individual, to take control of the hokku tradition and to bend it to his personal will, nonetheless implied the right of the individual to change hokku however one wished, and given that this occurred in a period of great cultural change in Japan, its effects were tremendous. Shiki was not even dead before one of his students — Hekigodō — asserted his own right to change the new haiku even more, and he continued until his verses were so radical and different that they had very little to do with the old hokku.  As haiku developed it became acceptable to drop the connection with the seasons, with Nature, and for all practical purposes, haiku became a new and different verse form, which is what it remains in most cases today, particularly in the West.

Not surprisingly, what Westerners took from all this was that anyone could write “haiku” any way they wished.  That is still the creed of most modern haiku enthusiasts today.  And so haiku has become whatever anyone wants it to be.  As I have said before, something that becomes anything becomes in essence nothing at all.   That is why haiku today is impossible to clearly define.  It is simply too varied and fragmented, and it continues to vary and to fragment.  That also is one of the chief reasons why the modern haiku community tends often to bickering and dissension.

It is not surprising that this is what has become of haiku, because in the modern West, “poetry” is seen as a form of self-expression — often of rebellion — which is why “haiku” was taken up by the “Beat Generation” in the 20th century.  Of course by then it was already confused with the old hokku, and people simply could not tell the difference because they had never properly learned or understood the aesthetics of the old hokku.  When someone told them that “haiku” was what Bashō and the other old masters of Japan wrote, they simply and naïvely accepted that.

It is very important to recognize that the hokku was fundamentally misunderstood and misperceived from its very first appearance in the West in the 19th century.  The early Western poets — the Imagists among them — simply saw in the hokku a reflection of their misperceptions both of Asian culture and of its literature.  Because hokku was an aesthetic blank for them, when they looked at it, it was like looking in a mirror; they saw their own faces — their own ideas about poets and poetry and the mysterious East — staring back at them.

That fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of hokku has been perpetuated in the modern haiku community right up to the present.  In fact, as I have said before, so pervasive were the misconceptions about the history and nature of hokku that when I first began teaching that Bashō wrote hokku, not “haiku,” the reaction of the modern haiku community in general was first disbelief, then irritation.   But gradually more and people more in the modern haiku community have come to recognize and admit that what they write has little or no connection to the hokku of Onitsura and Bashō beyond brevity.  And they are beginning to realize that what most of them are writing stems more from American and European experimentation and ideas in the latter half of the 20th century than it does with old hokku, or even the conservative haiku of Shiki.

Once people begin to realize that “haiku” is an inaccurate and anachronistic and mistaken term when applied to the hokku tradition,then they can begin to see things realistically, and can then begin to learn what hokku really is as opposed to the misunderstands so prevalent in the 20th century.

In general the modern haiku tradition has lost the obligatory old hokku connection with Nature, with the seasons, and with the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku.  Modern haiku is for the most part a new Western brief verse form with remarkably shape-shifting and  fluid boundaries.   I must, however, add one disclaimer.  There are a few individuals in modern haiku today that do maintain some genuine relation to the old hokku, if not in name.  Generally these are people who, though writing haiku, have been particularly influenced by pre-Shiki hokku.  Some are influenced by less-radical 20th-century Japanese haiku, having aesthetics are not quite those of the old hokku, but are very like the conservative haiku style of the 20th-century Japanese haiku writer Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959).  In many cases, these individuals are still worlds away from much that is written as modern haiku, and are sometimes more akin to the conservative haiku of Shiki — thus removed from, but not as isolated from, the old hokku as is modern haiku in general.

Now what is the point in saying all this?  The reason I take the time to write this — apart from historical accuracy — is that in order to learn to write hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, one must distinguish it from modern haiku.  Hokku is something quite different, with its own aesthetics, techniques, and principles.  These are impossible to learn if one is constantly mistaking it for haiku.

Once it is understood and recognized that hokku and haiku are generally two different things, individuals may then choose to write either or neither.  But at least they will be making a more informed decision than those who have never learned to distinguish the two.