THE STRANGE TALE OF HOW AN EXCELLENT REVIEW BECAME A SCATHING REVIEW

Some of you, in looking about on the Internet,  may have come across search topic headings like these:

People familiar with my writing are often puzzled to find those search entries, because they lead to a very negative article that does not seem to fit what they know of me and my views.

The article is a review published in a journal (to which I have never been a subscriber) called Modern Haiku.  It was written by the late William J. Higginson.

Those who know the real history of this review and who compare it with the actual book will likely see it as a particularly disingenuous manifestation of what was apparently Higginson’s peculiar literary territorialism and antipathy to any attempts to revive the traditional hokku.  And from all evidence, Higginson certainly wanted the hokku thoroughly dead and buried and forgotten, as evinced by his active effort to get reference publications such as dictionaries and encyclopedias to declare the word “hokku” obsolete, and his opposition to the more traditional views of Harold Gould Henderson, who was one of the two foremost Western writers on the topic in the mid-20th century, the other being the incomparable R. H. Blyth.

Paradoxically, Higginson’s very negative and seemingly deliberately misleading review was published in an issue of that journal called the Robert Spiess Memorial Issue.  Robert Spiess was the editor of Modern Haiku who had passed away shortly before the “memorial” issue appeared.

What is paradoxical about this is that Spiess himself, before his passing, had surprised me with a letter, telling me that he had read my book and that he was “highly impressed with it” and would give it a “very fine review” in Modern Haiku.  However, he passed away before that promised “very fine review” appeared, and in its place suddenly and strangely appeared Higginson’s bitter review, expressing a view of the book quite the opposite of that held by the late editor, whom that particular issue was purportedly memorializing.

This had seemed rather odd to me, given what Spiess had promised, so I sent the new editor of Modern Haiku a copy of the letter Spiess had sent me, suggesting it be published as a more accurate reflection of the late “memorialized” editor’s views, and as a counterbalance to Higginson’s review.  I received not a word in response, and of course the letter of Spiess that would have made his own opinion of my book quite clear was never seen by readers of Modern Haiku, and is never mentioned in copies of that review on the Internet.

In any case, those who have read the book may form their own opinions.  I do not and have never subscribed to Modern Haiku.  I teach hokku, not modern haiku, and consequently would not have submitted anything to that publication for review — which accounts for my surprise on receiving the commendatory letter from Spiess.   As for the promised review of my book that editor Robert Spiess originally intended for publication in Modern Haiku, it of course was mysteriously replaced with that of Higginson; but here is the actual letter Spiess wrote me, so readers may see for themselves what Spiess thought of my book — in contrast to what Higginson had to say.

HOKKU AND TONGUE-CRAFT

Here is a repeat of something I wrote some four years ago:

As readers have noticed, I like to teach using old hokku as examples — good old hokku for the most part, unless I am pointing out how not to write.

It is fortunate that hokku translate well; so well, in fact, that often the English translations are better as verses than the Japanese originals.  There are commonly poems so wedded to the original language that when translated they lose all energy and go flat.  Hokku are not like that.  The reason, no doubt, is that the effect of hokku is in the presentation of a strong sensory experience.  The emphasis is on substance over form, and hokku do not rely on such things as rhyme or even a stable rhythm, though of course in the original language of old hokku there tends to be a standard pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units, the result being a rhythm like that of the following lines, used purely to demonstrate that rhythm:

Would you like to go?
If I wanted I could go —
But I cannot now.

In other words, it has beats like this:

/////
///////
/////

Of course such inherent rhythm is lost when hokku change language:

This road —
No one is on it;
The autumn evening.

That gives us this pattern of beats:

//
/////
//////

So it is a fact that in English we give little importance to retaining the 5/7/5 rhythm of the originals, because it would severely limit transmitting the verbal meaning in translation and it would have severe creative limits in composing original verses in English.  But we can say that once that original 5/7/5 rhythm standard is dropped, hokku generally transmit easily from language to language.

This ease with which hokku move from one language to another has, however, a drawback.  It is the same problem found in unstructured poetry in general, no matter how many lines may comprise it.  While the experience of reading a particular hokku may be memorable, the actual words are not.  It is in fact such “superfluities” of poetry as rhyme, rhythm, meter, alliteration and assonance that make a poem easy to remember.  This one drawback of hokku, if we may call it a drawback, may in fact be a major reason why hokku have so far not been taken very seriously in the English language, aside from their brevity and the unfortunate mediocrity that forms the bulk of what has come to be known as “haiku” in the English-speaking world.

Harold Henderson, in his An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday & Company, 1958), actually translated old hokku as rhymed verse.  We can see in his translations the benefits and hazards of trying to do so:

How cool the breeze:
The sky is filled with voices —
Pine and cedar trees.

That is easy to remember because of the rhyme — much easier in fact than a more literal rendering:

A cool breeze;
The sky is filled with
The sound of pines.*

As Henderson’s translations show, rhyming hokku generally requires a certain distortion of the original.  Commonly words must be added that go beyond the original meaning.  And Henderson found he could not translate all hokku — even his favorites — into rhyme, as is evidenced by the numerous examples of unrhymed hokku in his book for which no suitable rhyme was found.  That is no doubt one reason why, in later writing on the subject, Henderson abandoned rhyme, which was, after all, originally merely an attempt to make hokku look more like traditional English-language poetry.

But hokku, as I have often said, is not really poetry as we commonly think of it.  And specifically, it is not a poetry of the mouth or the ear.  It is, rather, a verse of the eye.  Hokku are best read silently, whereas poetry may with benefit be read aloud.

Poetry is the verse of the tongue and the ear, Cerdd Davod as it is called in that most mouth-and-ear-oriented language of poetry, Welsh — the art of the tongue, or as Twm Morys so well puts it, “tongue-craft.”

Strange to say, verse of the mouth and ear can have an effect that transcends its content, and ease of remembrance is just one aspect of that effect in which even the mediocre is remembered, and perhaps even transfigured.

That was the experience of the Welsh-language poet Twm Morys when he deliberately set out to write an example poem in English of the Welsh cywydd form.  The result was My First Love was a Plover, which Morys readily admits was simply “nonsense” written to exemplify the outer requirements of the Welsh verse form.  The form was his goal, not substance.

The result, however, was quite unanticipated.  Morys writes of it,

Now as I was the author of it, I happened to know at the time that this cywydd, though absolutely correct according to the rules of strict meter, was also a load of nonsense.  But it had an immediate, sometimes very emotional, effect on audiences.  I now realize that it is the most profound poem I have ever written.

See for yourself.  you may read My First Love was a Plover at:

Click to access morys.pdf

Go to page 114.

After reading this verse we can easily see why the power of sound is linked with magic in old stories.  We feel the effect of spoken words transcending their literal meanings.

Where does all this leave us with hokku?  Right back with the statement that hokku is not poetry as we conventionally understand it.  Hokku is not tongue-craft but rather the recording and transmission of a sensory experience.

Is it any wonder, then, that English-language poets have paid hokku little attention,  and that what attention it has received  has been as the mutated haiku — a Western hybrid mixed with Western notions of poetry?  In hokku the substance is more important than the form, and that is why the form itself — that is the actual words — are so quickly forgotten.  In poetry the form — the words — may rise higher than the substance and the sounds of the words have an effect transcending what may be the utter simplicity of their meaning.

I know who owns these woods, but his house is in the village.  He won’t see me stopping here to watch snow fill his woods.”

That is substance over form.  It may be “poetic” in a sense, but more often it is not, and that is one reason why there are so many very mediocre “haiku” and even mediocre attempts at hokku.

But here is substance transfigured by form, though the form is simple:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

That is of course Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

All of this simply shows us once more that hokku is not poetry as we usually think of it.  What must be repeated and remembered is that in hokku, the poetry is not in the words but in the sensory experience conveyed by the words.  And like the raft abandoned when the other shore is reached, we quickly forget the words of a hokku, though not the experience.  Poetry allows us to retain the words, which may even transcend and transfigure the experience, if experience there was in fact to begin with.  Is one “better” than the other?  Better for what?

Hokku does what it is intended to do, and it does it well.  It is our problem if we persist in confusing it with poetry.  And poetry does what it is intended to do.  Poetic methods can make the mediocre memorable even when its techniques are flawed:

Wash it once,
It lasts for months,
With Duro plastic starch.

Or it can work its sound magic on the depths of human experience, as in Hopkins’ lines:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

To like hokku does not mean that we must not like poetry.  But we must be able to recognize and understand the differences between hokku and poetry or else we shall be in the same position as those multitudes in the English-language haiku establishment who long ago misinterpreted hokku as being like conventional poetry, and who then, through combining the outer form of hokku with the substance of Western poetry, erroneously created what generally passes for the English-language “haiku.”  That is an error we must not make in writing original hokku in English.

———————————————————————————————–

* The Japanese word koe, approximating “voice” in English, is often used in hokku where English would use “sound” or even another word such as “cry” or “chirp,” as in the koe of a cricket” or the koe of pines in the wind.

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

HACKETT HEWS AT HAIKU

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.

(See http://www.hacketthaiku.com/TAThaikuPoem.html#Haiku/01)

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.

David