ARSENIC-SMEARED HAIKU

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:

Image

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
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

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.

David

FAILURE OF TRANSMISSION

It is interesting 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 itself but as what 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 as miserable an excuse for hokku as anything one finds in Western “haiku” publications and anthologies of the 1960s.

And Paul Eluard, writing in 1920, presents us with another abomination as “clever” and unlike hokku as anything one is likely to find on today’s avant-garde haiku blogs:

Le vent
Hésitant
Roule une cigarette d’air.

The wind
Hesitating
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 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 obviously 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 miscontrived 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 foisted 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?

Well, one can blame it partly on the Japanese themselves, who in the first half of the 19th century, being overwhelmed by Western culture and technology, gradually displaced the old term “hokku” with the term introduced 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 incorrectly introduced to hokku under Shiki’s revisionist term haiku, which had by then become popularized in Japan.

Then the trouble really began 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 incorrectly 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 what was really 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 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, inaccurate, 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, who seemed to think that wrongly calling the verses of all pre-Shiki writers “haiku” would somehow make their own peculiar efforts appear to be in the old tradition of Bashō, when in reality they were often simply furthering the misperception 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 became the blind leading the blind, and this 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.”  Instead, hokku was hijacked and distorted and misrepresented by the Western modern haiku groups that began appearing in the middle of the 20th century, and it is still, for the most part, in that lamentable situation today.  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 the public has been misled by the self-made haiku pundits and the haiku societies of 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 had virtually nothing to do with what was written by Basho and Onitsura and other Japanese writers in the two centuries prior to the revisionism of Shiki.  With very few exceptions, none of the vast number of “haiku” writers from the mid-20th century up to the present have any relation to genuine pre-Shiki hokku.

What has happened, however, is that people have simply 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 today essentially the same simply because they had a common evolutionary ancestor.  Nonetheless, this gross misperception has been actively and enthusiastically promoted by modern haiku groups.

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 from misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku.

Those who wish to write hokku, then, will not learn how to do so from reading books put out by those in the modern haiku community, or by reading the endless misinterpretations on modern haiku web sites.  Instead, one must learn hokku quite separate from all that is modern haiku, if one wishes to learn it correctly.  Hokku is not, and never was, haiku, and until one understands that basic fact, one will not be able to understand it or to learn how to practice it.

David