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:

ja: 鈴木其一(寛政八〜安政五年)画『朝顔図屏風』 en: Asagao-zu Byōbu...

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.




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.


In his useful book Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (University of Pennsylvania, 1979, 1965), Paul Fussell writes:

An even more exotic version of the tercet is the haiku (or hokku) ….  Playing around with it in English is surely as harmless as working crossword puzzles; but since its structural principles seem to have very little to do with the nature of the English language, we should not expect the form to produce any memorable poems.”

One sees immediately that Fussell was not impressed.  But he has a point — in fact more than one.

1.  The structure of the hokku does not fit English.

If we take this very literally, he is quite correct.  The Japanese hokku (and the haiku of Shiki) were based upon a pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units, and this kind of “syllabic” (to use the term loosely because it is not entirely syllabic in Japanese) form is alien to English.  English is an accent-stress language, while Japanese is a pitch-stress language.  Japanese thus did not use lines based on vowel quality and accent, but rather lines based upon (again speaking loosely) syllabic number.

When we write hokku, then, we are borrowing a form essentially alien and ill-fitting to English, and that means either we remain woodenly literalistic in how we adopt it or we change it to better fit the English language.

On the woodenly literalistic side, we have the elementary school approach to the “haiku,” as it is commonly called.  It is presented to the students as a poem of 5-7-5 syllables.  Of course the Japanese phonetic unit and the English syllable are not precisely the same, and there seems little logical reason to adopt the 5-7-5 syllable pattern in English other than its rough approximation to the Japanese practice.  But in any case, we are left with little verses in English that have neither rhyme nor meter in the conventional sense, and that has contributed to the persistent mediocrity of “elementary school” haiku.

2. Fussell tells us that partly due to its antagonism to the English language, we should not expect any memorable poems from the form.  In this he has proved remarkably prophetic, because after at least a half century of English-language haiku, it has produced no memorable poems.

We must, however, take “memorable” in two senses.  First, we can understand it to mean that Western haiku has produced no poems worth remembering.  That is, for the most part quite true.  Second, we can take it in the sense that Western haiku has produced no poems that one can easily remember.  And there too the statement is valid, because the structure of the haiku (and of the hokku in this case) does not encourage remembrance.  The haiku has no rhyme, no stress accent giving rise to formal meter, both of which are mnemonic devices — aids to memory.  So we can say that Western haiku has produced virtually no verses that are simultaneously easy to remember and worth remembering.

In short, Fusell essentially wrote decades ago that aside from a brief amusement, the “haiku” was virtually worthless as poetry.  That remains largely true today.

Having said that, however, one must recognize that Fussell went no deeper into the nature of the haiku (and here I will revert to the historically-correct term hokku) than its outer form.  When we look at its aesthetics, which were neither discussed by him nor understood at all by those who created the English-language haiku in the middle of the 20th century, we find that whatever the failures of the modern haiku, its predecessor, the hokku, has never been given an adequate chance in English because it has never been correctly perceived.

To understand that, we must look at the differences between the Japanese hokku and the English-language hokku.

Where the Japanese hokku had a set structure (varying only slightly) of five, seven, and five phonetic units, the English language hokku has no such restrictions.  Instead it adopts the wider essence of the matter, making the English hokku consist of a longer and a shorter segment separated by punctuation.  It is understood that brevity, though variable, is not to be exceeded.

Second, because the Japanese hokku was based upon principles of “syllabic” structure ill-fitting English, the English-language hokku neither attempts to reproduce this unfitting garment, nor does it attempt to replace it by some unrelated English equivalent such as rhyme, which the early writer on “haiku” in English — Harold Henderson — attempted.

All of this means that the hokku comes into the English language with virtually none of the characteristics of English language poetry.  And if one considers the “point” of hokku — which is quite separable both from its “syllabic” structure and from any recognizable “poetic” conventions in English — we find that to think of the hokku in English as “poetry” is to immediately mislead the reader and confuse the issue, because the reader will then look for conventional characteristics of poetry.  Aside from the three-line form, he or she will not find them.

That leaves us with the important and revealing discovery that the essence of the hokku is not to be found in anything conventionally poetic (which was the mistake Westerners made in creating the Western “haiku”), but rather it is to be found in recognizing that the poetry of the hokku lies neither in the words nor in the form, but instead in the thing-event that the writer presents to the reader.

When William Wordsworth saw daffodils dancing in the breeze beside a lake, he made a poem of them.  But from the point of view of hokku, the poetry of the poem is only secondary; the real poetry is in the daffodils and the lake and the breeze — in the initial experience that gave rise to Wordsworth’s poem.

This is a view of poetry quite unfamiliar in the West, which always looks for this or that convention of form or content, and always thinks that one must “improve upon” Nature in making a poem by adding conventionally poetic words or commentary.

What this means in practice is that an English-language hokku, though in three lines, will use any number of syllables per line that will convey the thing-event in a clear manner without adding or detracting from it.  It has no need for the added “poetic” words and commentary.  Nonetheless, many hokku translated into English or written as English-language originals will find their way into some structure, as we see in this example, an old hokku by Buson:

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Though presented here in English, it consists, like the old hokku, of a longer and a shorter part, which in English are separated by punctuation.  We have three words in the first line, three words in the last.  But we also have three words in the middle line, though it does not seem to boringly repeat the form of the first and last lines because it is visually longer and longer also in syllables, giving a 3-5-3 pattern.  It is in precisely such ways that the hokku in English naturally finds its proper structure, without being forced into garments too small and restricting for it.

The hokku is admittedly not as easy to remember as a poem with the conventional mnemonic devices of rhyme or meter, but it has its own natural structure nonetheless, and this will vary somewhat from verse to verse.  And in any case, the hokku is largely designed to be silently read rather than spoken.  So even though the hokku may not be memorable in the sense of “easy to remember,” a hokku may nonetheless be memorable in its experience and depth of unspoken significance, as in this hokku by Buson.  To be so, it must share in the aesthetics common to the best hokku.

Those who write modern haiku have generally never learned these aesthetics, which the haiku enthusiasts of the second half of the 20th century largely discarded, generally without even being aware of their nature.

The hokku, on the other hand, has never received the chance in English to reveal the depth of its aesthetics and techniques, primarily because it was pushed out of public consciousness quite early on by the prolific popularity of the far easier and far less challenging haiku.

That is why the English-language haiku has largely been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  Today it is generally considered on the same level as greeting card verse, and it is usually at its most popular as satirical, humorous verse.  The hokku, by contrast, has never really been transmitted to the West, and its possibilities remain largely untapped.

There are very definite reasons, then, why I consider the hokku far superior to the modern haiku, and why I do not consider the latter an extension of the former, but rather  a new verse form  loosely inspired by the old hokku, but created by Westerners who had no genuine understanding of the far more profound and meaningful aesthetics of the old hokku.