LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

Tōro kiete bashō ni kaze no wataru oto
Lantern gone-out banana at wind ‘s pass-through sound

I don’t much like verses that need background explanations, but in this case, perhaps what is learned will be helpful

To understand the verse, we need to know first that the kind of lantern mentioned — a tōrō — is generally an outdoor lantern, commonly used in gardens and along pathways.  So this verse happens outside rather than inside.

Second, you probably recognized the word bashō in the transliterated Japanese.  Yes, it is the word Bashō took as his literary name.  A bashō is a hardy kind of banana plant that under the right circumstances produces quite small and inedible bananas, so it is grown primarily for its fibers, from which a number of things can be made, and for its appearance — with its pleasant long and wide green leaves.

In plant nurseries you will see it as Musa basjooMusa — scientifically speaking — is its genus, and basjoo is the species.  Basjoo really should be pronounced as bah-syo-oh –which is close enough to bashō — but I am sure most people will end up saying something like “bass-joo” — which is not at all correct, and obscures the connection with Bashō.

Now that we have gotten through all of that, we can translate the verse with understanding — but we will also see the problems in translation.  A rather literal rendering would be:

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana.

Now when Westerners hear “banana,” they think first of the yellow, edible fruit of the tropical banana, instead of the hardy Musa basjoo that can grow even where winters are freezing, though it dies back to the ground and shoots up again in the spring, unless given winter protection.  So “the sound of wind passing /Through the banana” gives us a rather odd picture.

Also, there is the problem of “lantern,” which as we have seen, means a kind of outdoor or garden lantern in this case — not an indoor lantern of the old days.  So to clearly translate the verse, we would need to say something like

The stone lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana leaves.

Most tōrō were stone lanterns, though they could also be of metal or wood, or even be hanging instead of on the ground — or, in some cases, be formal lanterns in temples.

What all of this bothersome explanation tells us is that this verse “does not travel well,” which is a phrase I use to describe those verses that are so tied to a particular culture that it is difficult for those in another culture to understand them without explanation — and of course explaining a hokku is rather like explaining a joke; the strength just goes out of both the hokku and the joke.

That is why we don’t write hokku in English that require a lot of explanation to be understood.

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That is probably about as close as one can get in English without being excessively wordy — and the reader will likely still not realize at first that the lantern is an outdoor lantern.  It could easily be a lantern indoors, and when it goes out, one’s attention is drawn from the now-extinguished light to the other main sensory impression — the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Perhaps we could get closer to the original meaning with something like this:

The lantern blows out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That makes the connection that just “The lantern goes out” does not make — that the night wind has blown out the flame in the lantern, and when the light is gone, we hear the sound of that same wind as it blows through the leaves of the banana plant.

None of these, however is an ideal translation of the original, as you can see from this long discussion of all that is involved.  The reader who intuits that the lantern is outdoors is likely to see it as a lantern held in the hand of someone walking down a path at night, rather than a fixed garden lantern.  In spite of that, however,  either of our attempts will make good hokku in English — if we forget about saying exactly what Shiki meant:

So when we read

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

— it is all right if we understand the lantern to be indoors, and we are hearing through an open window the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Or if we prefer the outdoor version, we can hope for the reader’s best intuition, and give it as

The lantern blows out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

It is noteworthy that in both versions, the point is that when we lose one sensory impression — in this case sight, from the light of the lantern — the remaining sensory impression — the sound of the wind — becomes all the stronger.

We can see the same effect — the same technique of composition — used in another verse by Shiki:

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone fireworks ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

In both cases, the “point” is the same — now that the sensory input of the bright fireworks and their noise is gone along with all those who watched them, we are left only with silence and darkness  — a darkness which is felt to be even deeper because of the absence of the fireworks and people.

As I have said before, the absence of something in hokku can have a very strong effect, as strong or even stronger than presence.

 

David

 

 

GOING TEN STEPS

Shiki wrote a very simple but effective autumn verse, though it does not look like much literally translated:

Mon wo dete  juppo ni  aki no umi hiroshi
Gate wo going-out  ten-steps at autumn sea wide

We have to put it in English and loosen it up a bit to see its significance:

Going ten steps
Beyond the gate;
The vast autumn sea.

We could phrase it like this:

Going ten steps
Out the gate;
The vast autumn sea.

Or we could write it like this:

Just ten steps
Beyond the gate;
The vast autumn sea

We could also translate it as:

Just ten steps
Beyond the door —
The vast autumn sea.

“Vast” — which is also the word Blyth chose in his version — is preferable in English to the less effective “wide.”

The point of the verse lies in the sudden expansion of the visual horizon:  as one goes out the gate/door, there before us lies the vast sea of autumn.  It is a very strong use of the “small to large” technique in writing, in which one first sees the small element (the gate/door), and then the large element (the sea).

We saw a similar expansion from small to large in Issa’s autumn hokku:

How beautiful!
Through the hole in the shōji —
The River of Heaven.

First we experience the (small) hole in the paper door, then through it we move to the (large) vastness of the Milky Way — the “River of Heaven.”

It is noteworthy that one could set Shiki’s verse in any season, but each would have its own feeling:

The spring sea;
The summer sea;
The autumn sea;
The winter sea;

That is because we experience things as a whole.  Much of modern life tries to abstract things from their environment, but that is wrong.  We do not just see the moon.  We see the spring moon, or the summer moon, or the autumn moon, or the winter moon, each with its own feeling and significance.  In hokku we return to this connection between humans, Nature, and the seasons — seeing things in a more “wholistic” and connected way — which is really the way they are.  Things do not exist as abstractions, but only in relation to other things such as season, weather, etc.  In Shiki’s verse, we are not separate from the autumn, and the autumn is not separate from the sea.

Learning — or rather re-learning this relationship of all things — is fundamental to the successful writing of hokku.

 

David

 

DEFINING HOKKU

Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:

DEFINING HOKKU

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:
Dawn;

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.

David

SENSORY EXPERIENCE: THE HOKKU AESTHETIC

R. H. Blyth, in a very convoluted paragraph tucked away in his little-read volume titled Senryu, gives an ultimately simple definition of the hokku aesthetic that I will put into easily-understandable words:

Hokku is a non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

He is talking about what happens when one reads a hokku.  We can take, for example, even this late verse by Shiki, who would have called it a haiku, but it is nonetheless just the old hokku:

(Summer)

Coolness;
Seen through the pine boughs —
Sailing ships.

There is nothing intellectual about it.  It is all an experience of the senses, an involuntary sensory experience created in the reader when it is read,  a reader who suddenly finds herself or himself looking through green pine boughs at sailing ships passing by on the blue water.

The first line is a basic sensory experience of coolness, felt on the skin.  Then comes a visual sensory experience of boughs and ships and water, and the combination of the coolness with the visual sensation makes the whole one simultaneous,  non-rational (by which I mean immediate and not thought out) experience.

In the same volume, Blyth also tells us what he means by “Zen” in hokku.  I don’t even like to use the term “Zen” today, because it has been so misunderstood, misinterpreted, and sullied by use and over-use.  So we can just use the synonym-phrase Blyth gives us:

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

If you leave all the other mind baggage aside, and focus just on what is on this page, you will make a great step forward in understanding what hokku is all about.

Shiki also wrote:

(Summer)

Coolness;
With the lamp gone out,
The sound of water.

One does not need to think about it.  One just needs to experience it.  Moving from “thinking” poetry, which a lot of Western poetry is, to “no-thinking” verse, which is hokku, will give you a completely different way of looking at verse.

 

David

*
Suzushisa ya   matsu no hagoshi no    hokake bune
Coolness ya    pine    ‘s   needles-seen-through ‘s sailing ship(s)

Suzushisa ya    andon kiete   mizu no oto
Coolness ya      lamp   gone-out water ‘s sound

 

 

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT ‘TIL ITS GONE: SHIKI’S FIREWORKS

I have talked previously about how conservative in many ways the supposed “revolutionary” Masaoka Shiki really was. He was not a particularly happy or even likable person, and his “reform” of hokku consisted largely of divorcing it from any possibility of being used in linked verse, in giving his reformed version a new name (“haiku”) and in largely divorcing the hokku from its spiritual roots, at least in theory, as well as contributing toward the forgetting of its underlying principles.

In practice, however, Shiki continued to write hokku while just calling them “haiku.” He kept the traditional brevity and the traditional connection with the seasons. He even often kept — perhaps unconsciously — some of the same principles of construction used by earlier writers of hokku.

In the past couple of postings I have talked about the principle of contrast in hokku. Shiki obviously picked this up and used it occasionally in his own verses, though again, perhaps not consciously.

A very good example is the following verse, which in Japan would be an autumn hokku; fireworks are a subject for autumn there. In the United States, however, fireworks are largely a midsummer topic because of the Fourth of July — Independence Day — and its traditional celebration with parades and evening fireworks. That does not mean one cannot write hokku with fireworks about other seasons, but they are particularly appropriate to “The Glorious Fourth.”

Here is the verse:

Everyone has gone;
The darkness
After the fireworks.

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone firework ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

It is not difficult to see that this uses the same principle of contrast discussed earlier. It shows us the nature of a thing by contrasting it with another. In this poem we have two things absent: 1. The people, who have all gone home from the fireworks display; 2. The fireworks, which have have ended.

In the first we have the contrast between the crowds of people who came to watch and the absence of those crowds. That gives us a very solitary and lonely feeling.

In the second we have the contrast between the bright, colorful explosions and bangs of the fireworks and the complete darkness and utter silence after. That only makes the darkness seem all the deeper.

This is a very old principle. The Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-zi (pronounced LA-o dzuh) wrote:

When the people of the Earth all know beauty as beauty,
There arises (the recognition of) ugliness.
When the people of the Earth all know the good as good,
There arises (the recognition of) evil.

Therefore:
Being and non-being interdepend in growth;
Difficult and easy interdepend in completion;
Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position;
Tones and voice interdepend in harmony;
Front and behind interdepend in company.

(Tao Teh Ching; Lin Yutang translation)

In other words, contrasts give significance. We know what cold is after we have become accustomed to warmth; we know what kindness really is only because we have experienced cruelty; the same could be said of countless other contrasting things in the universe.

So in hokku, something that is NOT there can be just as significant, perhaps even more at times, than something that IS there. That is why in Shiki’s verse, we feel the aloneness very deeply after all the people have gone, and we feel the darkness and silence all the more because of the contrast with the previous colorful explosions of “flower-fire.” as the Japanese call fireworks.

This is something everyone knows, but people tend to forget the most obvious things. Joni Mitchell wrote a song with the words

“Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone…

It reminds me of the great American trilogy novel The Awakening Land by Conrad Richter. In the beginning, the female main character feels the deep forests and ancient trees of early frontier Ohio to be threatening and gloomy. But later on, when the forests are cleared and towns of streets and houses and shops are built, and she is far along in years, she begins to sense what had been lost with the cutting of the trees.

David

LEARNING FROM PEAR JUICE

It may seem odd that we can use some verses of Masaoka Shiki to demonstrate how to write hokku, given that Shiki provided the impetus for what became the erratic “haiku” movement, but as I have said many times, much of what Shiki wrote was just hokku under a different name.  Shiki’s verses were in general quite different from all that people now know as modern haiku in English.

Here is one such verse, which is an autumn hokku.  Usually I use my own translations, but in this case one can hardly better the translation by R. H. Blyth:

A pear

Peeling the pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife. 

Shiki was likely seeing an Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia), one of those yellowish round ones that have both a shape similar to an apple and something of its crispness.  But the verse is even better in English, because we picture one of the more soft and juicy Western pears (Pyrus communis), which are what we traditionally think of as “pear-shaped.”

But the point I want to make today is what students of hokku can learn from this verse, which is in every respect not only a hokku but also quite a good one.

First, we can see that it has the necessary two parts of a hokku, one long, one short, separated in Japanese by a cutting word and in English by its functional equivalent, a punctuation mark.

1.  Peeling a pear,

2.  Sweet drops trickle down the knife.

Pyrus pyrifolia
Pyrus pyrifolia

Of course these are fitted into the standard English-language three-line hokku form.

The first part of the hokku functions as the setting.  What is a setting in hokku?  It is the overall environment or circumstance or context in which something takes place.  In this verse that context — that situation — is “Peeling a pear.”

Next, this verse is quite typical of the most common hokku structure in that it has both a subject and an action, placed within the context of the setting.

The subject is “Sweet drops.”

The action (something moving or changing) is “…trickle down the knife.”

So that is it.  An absolutely normal but quite good hokku written by the fellow people think of (somewhat confusedly) as the founder of the modern haiku movement, in spite of the fact that most of Shiki’s verses have little or nothing in common with much that is written as “modern haiku” in English and other European languages today.

The other respect in which this verse is a good model for hokku is that it simply shows us an event related to Nature (the pear and the sweet drops) and humans as a part of Nature (the peeling action and the knife).  No commentary or explanation is added, and there is no symbolism or metaphor.  And it has very good sensation.  Remember that sensation in hokku is an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.

Think of it as seeing a closeup of the event in a clear mirror.  It reflects exactly what is happening:

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

Now imagine that the clear mirror is really the mind of the hokku writer.  Just like a real mirror reflecting what is there, the writer presents us with just what is happening, without adding frills or comments, and does so in very simple, easy-to-understand, everyday language.  That is what a writer of hokku does.  He or she is a mirror reflecting events happening in the context of the seasons.

Blyth tells us that this verse is also an example of what he feels to be the “real function of poetry, — to hold the mirror up to nature in such a way that we perceive its workings.

That is very different from what we are accustomed to in Western poetry, which often has quite a different purpose.  But this verse does in fact show us, as Blyth says, “the nature of a pear, the nature of a knife, the relation between the two….

All these are reasons why this verse makes a very good model for students of hokku — something that cannot be said of all of Shiki’s verses.

It is very important to keep in mind that hokku are written in one of the four seasons, and that the season is the underlying subject of the verse, which as a whole thereby expresses the character of that season.  So when you write hokku in English or other non-Japanese languages, you should always mark them with the season in which they are written, like this:

(Autumn)

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

David

 

 

 

SHIKI, SUMMER, AND A SINGLE STONE

 

Translating Japanese verses is not always a simple matter.  Some translate easily and well, others present problems.  For example, I might translate a verse by Shiki as

People keep resting
On the one stone there;
The summer fields.

R. H. Blyth, however, translates the same verse as

One after another,
People rest on this stone
On the summer moor.

The truth is that both translations are compromises, because Shiki wrote it in very telegraphic syntax which reads literally

Consecutive persons repose summer fields’ stone single

In my verse, I chose to emphasize the presence of only one stone.  That is why travelers through the fields keep stopping to rest on it.  It is their only chance.  Blyth, however, chose instead to emphasize the “consecutiveness” of the stopping people, which is why he says “one after another.”  He ignores the singularity of the stone.

Blyth even gives an extended commentary on the verse, in which he tells us that “the stone is under a tree, in the shade, and it is just the right height and shape, so that it seems to invite everyone to sit on it.”

Well, as readers here know, I have great admiration for Blyth, and so I understand why he  mentions — creatively adds, really — a tree and its shade over the stone, even though there is not a word about them in the original.   Blyth is intuiting why everyone would stop and sit on that stone, and a tree and its shade would certainly make it more inviting on a hot summer day in the fields.

In my translation, however, I am perhaps more of a cruel realist, more like Thomas Hardy.  The passers-by sit on that stone not because there is a tree shading it (there is not), but simply because it is the only big rock in all the wide fields, their last and only chance to sit and rest their weary feet, whether the sun has heated the stone to a summery temperature or not.

I cannot bring myself, in translation, to add a tree and its shade that are not in the original, but I must admit that to really convey all that is found in the original verse, one has to break out of the hokku form, perhaps

One after another,
People stop to sit on it —
The single stone
In the summer fields.

So there is another way of writing Nature verse for you, a kind of combination of the hokku and the quatrain.  Should I call it a “quakku”?

 

David

 

 

 

KEEPING THE BEST, DISCARDING THE REST: GOOD TASTE IN HOKKU

Long-time readers here will recall that the hokku I teach is derived only from the best aspects of the old Japanese hokku — those that tend to objectivity, poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.  That is why not everything one may find in old hokku is included in the new.

To better explain that, we might look at some verses from two widely-separated periods of hokku — that of Matsuo Bashō in the 1600s, and that of Masaoka Shiki, who died in 1902.

What I would like to point out today is that each wrote more than one kind verse in hokku form, and not all of them fit what we continue in modern hokku.

First there is Bashō.  He wrote some verses that are overtly “poetic,” while others are more objective.  Let’s look at some examples.

If held in my hand,
My hot tears would melt it;
Autumn frost.

To understand that verse it is essential to know that Bashō is visiting his old home, and is being shown a lock of his dead mother’s white hair.  That hair is what he says would melt if he took it in his hand.

Now we can see immediately that there is an unreality, a fantasy element to the verse.  Bashō is expressing both his personal sorrow over his mother’s passing and the transience of all things, but he is doing it subjectively by altering reality in his imagination.  We know the grey hair would not be melted by his tears; that is just a poetic exaggeration used to show his sorrow, similar to the kind of thing we find in Western poetry.  We can characterize verses such as this as his “poetic” side taking over.

The very last line — “Autumn frost” — would ordinarily be appropriate to more objective hokku, however here Bashō is not using it entirely objectively.  Instead, he parallels the autumn frost with his mother’s white hair — and autumn frost melts in warmth, while hair does not.  And note that we would NEVER write hokku today that require knowledge of the background — knowledge not included in the verse itself — in order to be understood.  In this verse we must know that Bashō is really speaking of his dead mother’s white hair in order to grasp what the verse is about.  In modern hokku such a verse fails, because a hokku should be able to stand on its own.

Bashō also wrote verses about his personal life, verses which, though more objective, are not good hokku.  For example:

One thing —
My life is light.
A gourd.

Again, this requires some explanation.  It would be clearer if we add a little more to the literal translation:

Owning one thing,
My life is light —
A hollow gourd.

This too is a poetic exaggeration.  Bashō not only owned this gourd, but also his clothing and his writing implements and papers, etc.  But he wants to emphasize that his few possessions make his life easier — lighter — than it would be if he owned a lot of things.  The hollow gourd was used as a container for rice used in cooking, though it could also be used to store liquids.

By the way, those who have seen the recent book Bashō: the Complete Haiku rendered by Jane Reichhold will find this “gourd” verse very misleadingly and inaccurately rendered there, a caution one should keep in mind when reading the rest of her renderings of Bashō.  I do not recommend her book for those who want the “real” Bashō.  A far more reliable translation of Bashō’s hokku is that of David Landis Barnhill, even though his book also uses the anachronistic term “haiku” in its title for what were really hokku.

We find more poetic exaggeration in this rather well-known verse by Bashō:

The sea darkens;
The wild duck’s cry
Is a faint white.

That, again, is the “poetic” mind at work.  Bashō wants to make an interesting contrast between the darkness and the “voice,” the cry of the wild duck that comes out of it.  We want to avoid that kind of manipulation in modern hokku.

Contrast the preceding verses with his best-known verse:

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

Note the objectivity.  Bashō has stopped talking about himself, has stopped his poetic exaggerating, and has presented us with a hokku that just reflects an event in Nature, in the context of the season — spring.  Even though this verse, according to tradition, was reworked and not experienced just as it is written, it nonetheless reflects the realities of Nature rather than Nature made unrealistic by the “poetic” imagination.  Such verse is the best of Bashō, and that is why it is in keeping with the principles underlying modern hokku.  So again, modern hokku does not include everything ever written as hokku as exemplary, but rather only the best.

If we turn to Masaoka Shiki, we tend to find elements in some of his verses that we found also in Bashō — for example the presence of the personal:

Getting a shave —
On a day when Ueno’s
Bell is misty.

It is obviously objective even though Shiki is writing about himself; the flaw in it is that it is also awkward and rather pointless; we don’t feel any real connection between Shiki getting a shave and the bell standing in mist.  We learn from this that objectivity without deeper significance can be boring.  Shiki never quite learned that simply recording an event objectively, whether personal or impersonal, does not of itself make good verse.  That is why some of his verses tend to be very flat and two-dimensional, like a picture in a book.

A better verse is one he wrote in 1896:Hasuiml.

The old garden;
Emptying the hot water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That is more connected to Nature because we feel a connection between the transparent water and the moon.  It would be better, however, if it were not a hot water bottle being emptied, but simply a water bottle:

The old garden;
Emptying a water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That way we do not have the word “hot” which is in conflict with the Yin character of the moon; removing it makes a greater harmony between the Yin water sparkling as it is emptied in the moonlight, and the moon itself.

Shiki also wrote:

Spring rain;
Umbrellas all uneven
In the ferry boat.

We see the ferry boat in the spring rain, its passengers all holding opened umbrellas at different heights.  We also feel the connection, though it is very obvious, between the spring rain and the umbrellas.  So there is a unity in this verse not found in his “being shaved” verse.

Put very bluntly, there was never a period when all hokku were equally good.  Only a minority of Bashō’s hokku are still worth reading, and all through the years from Bashō up to Shiki we find hokku that are too “poetic,” too “personal,” and some with the same thing we find in Shiki — verses that are objective but lack any depth or sense of deeper significance.

That is why, again, in modern hokku we use only the best of old hokku as models, and keep only the deeper principles of these as standards for writing new hokku.

When you read the older posts in the archive here, you will see what those deeper principles are — harmony, unity, reflection of the character of a season, and of course a sense of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness combined with the feeling of transience that has always been a part of hokku at its best.

David

“PARTING” HOKKU AND THE LONG POETIC TRADITION

A Chinese landscape painting by Wang Shen

It used to be common — and still is, to some extent — for people in the modern haiku movement to see Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) as a “rebel” of the end of the 19th century.  But actually, Shiki was in general far more conservative than one might think.

A good part of his “haiku,” for example, are really hokku in form and content.  And he retained not only the hokku form, but also the customary link with the seasons that characterizes the hokku.

We may consider Shiki then, in either of two roles:  on the one hand as the last major “hokku” writer,  and on the other as the man who set the “haiku” off on its erratic course.

Today I want to discuss a verse — still essentially a hokku — by Shiki, one that shows just how very conservative he often was.  It is a “parting” or “farewell” hokku, which is a poetic genre that one can trace all the way back to the Tang Dynasty of China and beyond — a thousand years and more.  It is a verse written to commemorate saying farewell to a dear friend who is leaving and will be gone for a very long time, perhaps forever.

The hokku poets — Shiki included — were heavily influenced by the poetry of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, in this particular genre by such poets as Li Bai (Li Po, 701-762), who is the author of this example:

Seeing  Meng Hao-ran off from Yellow Crane Tower

My friend is leaving the West from Yellow Crane tower,
Through the haze and blossoms of March down to Yangchou; 
A distant, single sail –the endless blue hills —
Then only the long river flowing to the edge of the sky. 

Li Bai watches as his friend goes downriver in a boat with a sail.  He watches it drift off though spring blossoms and haze into the distance of limitless blue hills, then it disappears, and he sees only the long river flowing to meet the sky.

Here is Shiki’s verse in this same genre but in hokku form, rather literally translated:

Boat and shore willow separates  parting kana

Kana is an ending word with no definite meaning.  It was often used simply to fill out the required number of phonetic units in a Japanese hokku.  We may think of it as a kind of pause or ellipsis here, indicating continuation, ongoing movement and the passage of time.

In ELH (English-language Hokku) form, we can present it as:

Boat and shore
Are separated by a willow;
Parting ….

You may recall that many hokku — particularly Japanese hokku — often require the participation of the reader’s poetic mind to fill in what is not said in words.  This one requires a bit of that, but it is rather easy.

By boat and shore, the writer means both the shore and the person on it, and the boat and the person in it.  As the boat is oared out into the river and begins to move downstream,  it rounds a headland on which a willow tree grows, which blocks the view of the departing boat from the shore.  That separation of boat and shore, friend from friend, is an internal reflection of the third line of the verse, which of course is the key to understanding the verse as a whole — “parting.”

Two verses in different forms, yet in the same genre and poetic tradition, though separated in time by more than a thousand years.  And that from a supposed “rebel.”  We see through such examples that in general, Shiki was often simply a hokku writer who used a revisionist name for his verse.

We can also see, from comparison of these two examples, how very long the poetic tradition that nourished and gave rise to the hokku was — a thousand years and more.

David

HOKKU: THE APPLE AND THE PULP

Red Apple. Used white paper behind apple and a...

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.

RICHARD WRIGHT: THE WRONG PATH TAKEN

In my previous posting I skimmed over the topic of Richard Wright and his attempts at writing what he called “haiku.”  Here I shall add just a bit to what was already said.

In my view Wright’s “haiku” are useful in demonstrating clearly how Western writers misperceived and misunderstood the hokku from their very first exposure, seeing it through the distorting lens of their Western preconceptions about poetry and poets. Consequently his “haiku,” represented by the volume Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, 1998) demonstrate how the Japanese hokku, written for centuries, became the “haiku” through its rather confused introduction to the West.

First of all, what is a hokku?  It is a short verse — in three lines in English, though generally one line in Japanese — expressing Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, in the context of the seasons.  It consists of two parts — a longer and a shorter — separated in English by appropriate punctuation.

Richard Wright was exposed to the hokku through the writings of Reginald Horace Blyth, who presented numerous translations of old hokku in his Haiku series, though he obviously and unfortunately used the anachronistic terminology of Shiki common in the Japan of his day.  Nonetheless, the larger part of what Blyth translated and commented upon was hokku, not the revisionistic and conservative “haiku” of Shiki, though Shiki was included in Blyth’s work.

It is important to repeat that when Richard Wright was exposed to the hokku (and conservative haiku) translations of Blyth, he unconsciously mixed what he was seeing with what he already knew of Western poetry, assuming parallels that existed only in his mind.  Consequently when Wright began to compose his own “haiku,” they were heavily influenced by what he was conditioned to think poetry should be, and so he did not see the hokku or the conservative haiku for what it really was.

The result, in the work of Wright and many other self-taught novice writers of the “new” haiku in the mid-20th century, was a hybrid verse that mixed the brief form of the hokku with what was often largely traditional “Western” poetic content.  That is the very simple means by which haiku got off on the wrong foot in the West and continues to misstep awkwardly to this day.

Wright’s “haiku” fall along a graduated scale ranging from verses that — by accident more than anything — may qualify as actual hokku, to verses that hybridize the two (hokku and Western poetry) in varying degrees, to verses that are entirely brief Western poems in substance, with only the brevity of the hokku remaining.

Here, for example, is a Wright “haiku” that has become entirely a Western poem in content, retaining only the shortness of the hokku and nothing of its substance:

Each ebbing sea wave
Makes pebbles glare at the moon,
Then fall back to sleep.

What Wright is really saying is that the successive waves of the withdrawing tide wet pebbles that first reflect back the bright moonlight (glare), then cease to reflect (sleep) as they again lose their watery shine.  But it is the way he says it that is the problem.  As a verse, it does exactly what hokku should not do, which is to mix the fantasy of the writer with reality.  In reality pebbles do not “glare,” nor do they sleep.  Such heavy use of what Wordsworth called the “coloring of the imagination” is, however, very characteristic of Western poetry, which is often heavily fantasy-imagination-based.

Another example of Western fantasy in Wright’s “haiku” is this:

Clutching from the trees,
Thick creepers are strangling clouds
In the lake’s bosom.

No Japanese writer of hokku would have written such a thing.  Again it is just Wright, representative of countless writers of Western “haiku,” smearing his imagination over reality, creating a brief Western poem, but not really a haiku as Shiki knew it, and certainly not a hokku.  Wright seems to have found it very difficult to just let things be as they are:

Every sandgrain
Of the vast sunlit desert
Hears the snake crawling.

Well, no it does not.  Sand grains do not hear.  But Wright must add what he thinks is his poetic imagination to the real poetry of Nature, and in doing so he repeatedly spoils a great many of his “haiku.”

A final example, and an extreme one, of Wright’s failure to understand that in hokku (and in “Shiki” haiku), reality should not be obscured by the writer’s fantasy:

What giant spider spun
That gleaming web of fire-escapes
On wet tenements?

Sadly, one repeatedly encounters such “fantasy” verses in the Wright anthology.  They are the result of an inherent preconception that reality in itself is not “poetic” enough, and must be enhanced by the addition of the writer’s “poetic” imagination.  It is a notion that is death to hokku, but very common in modern Western haiku — a hybrid verse form with little left in it of the hokku or the conservative haiku.

Wright did not understand that a hokku should be a manifestation of a season — something expressing the character of a season.  His use of obvious season, then, seems haphazard.  He assumed, as was and remains common among Western writers of “haiku,” that a haiku is simply an event.  He did not realize that such an event must have a deeply-felt unspoken significance, and so he wrote numbers of verses that leave the reader feeling “So what?”  Here is one of many:

In the July sun,
Three birds flew into a nest;
Only two came out.

Wright’s use of the season here in the word “July” is pointless, because the verse does not express the season.  It is just a random event, a random assemblage of elements.  It does not have the focus and coherence of a real hokku.

Wright sometimes falls victim to the pseudo-profundity syndrome that afflicted so many early Western writers of “haiku,” who thought they should make their verses “Zen-like.”  The result is verses such as:

Six cows are grazing;
The seventh stands near a fence
Staring into space.

Another:

The ocean in June:
Inhaling and exhaling
But never speaking.

And another example of pseudo-profundity:

A cathedral bell
Dimming the river water
In the autumn dusk.

As mentioned in my previous posting on Wright, he wrote many verses that are simply obvious variations on old Japanese hokku, verses recognized by anyone with a knowledge of the traditional hokku repertoire:

Among these “imitations” are:

In a dank basement
A rotting sack of barley
Swells with sprouting grain

That is based on this Japanese original by Buson:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

The large numbers of people visiting my site hoping to find something about Richard Wright and his “haiku” will likely be disappointed to read that in my view, Wright never really understood the hokku or the “Shiki” haiku, and consequently his work, when viewed in the context of hokku and of conservative haiku, does not go beyond the experimental student stage.  That he is so often used as an exemplar of “haiku” by teachers in elementary and high schools simply demonstrates that those teachers do not really understand what Wright was doing — and not doing.   And because they lack a background in hokku and an historical understanding of the origins of the Western “haiku,” they are unable to evaluate him objectively, and so spread this misevaluation of his verses among their students.

Wright’s “haiku,” falls between two stools, as the Germans say:  it is neither hokku nor “Shiki” haiku, nor is it for the most part even good as Western poetry.  Like much of modern haiku, it is an odd aberration, a reaching for something that Wright, lacking the technical and aesthetic knowledge, was not able to attain, though one nonetheless sees in his attempts a potential that was to remain unfulfilled.  That is due to his failure to understand the aesthetic point behind both the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku, and so he replaced it with a false point derived from what he already knew of Western poetry — something also characteristic of the great bulk of modern haiku, which follows in a similarly confused and erratic tradition.

 

David

TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON

Unlike most other kinds of verse, the hokku is linked with the season in which it is written.  In fact one can say truthfully that whatever the obvious subject of a hokku, the real subject is the season in which it is written, and the “obvious” subject is just a manifestation of that season.

This reflects the spiritual roots of hokku and the view that things are not isolated phenomena, but are interconnected in  innumerable ways.  So interconnected, in fact, that an object or an event cannot exist in isolation, but only as a part of the Whole.  So when Bashō writes of a frog jumping into an old pond, this is as a manifestation of and expression of the season of spring.  If one does not know that, one does not know the entire verse.  And most Westerners do not know that, because the seasonal connection is lost in transmission.

In old hokku, however, there was really only one way to know definitely the season of a given verse, and that was to have memorized a long and detailed glossary of recognized “season words,” called kigo 季語 (ki = season, go = ) in Japanese.  If a given topic was not to be found in such accepted lists, it was simply not a subject for a verse.  And to recognize the season of any verse and to write within the system required minimally six years or more of diligent study and familiarity before one could begin to use the “season word” technique with any facility.

Further, if one had not memorized the long list of acceptable words and their appropriate seasons, one had to refer to a glossary of season words in order to identify the season of any given hokku.  Such a lengthy glossary was called a saijiki 歳時記 (sai = year, ji = time, ki =  record), which we can simply call a “season book.”  The season book listed the accepted kidai 季題 (ki = season, dai = subject) and as a subcategory for each season subject, the kigo, the season words, rather like a theme and variations.

All of this, of course, meant that the writing of old hokku was no simple matter.  In fact passing time only brought increasing complexity to this system, and in addition, for all practical purposes, it limited the range of one’s subject matter to the accepted themes and season words.  If one read a verse without recognizing the season inherent in it, one was obviously neither ready to read hokku nor to write it.

To those of us writing hokku today this seems like an unreasonable and intolerable burden, and though it had its advantages, they were far outweighed by its complexities.  It is perhaps somewhat surprising, then, that Masaoka Shiki continued this season word system after his much-publicized re-packaging of the hokku as his “haiku.”

In modern haiku, which as readers here know I consider largely a degeneration and distortion of the hokku, there are two approaches to season.  The great majority of writers simply ignore it, having divorced the modern haiku from season entirely.  A lesser number attempt to re-create the bulky season word system in a Western context, and there are actually those who are busy compiling new “season books” in English, which given the geographical, climatic, and biological complexity of the United States alone, is a somewhat eccentric undertaking.  And of course attempting to establish such a complex season word system in the West merely revives all of its associated problems, one of the most obvious of which is that no one outside the little group of writers using one of these new “season books” will have the slightest idea what the season of many of the poems written under it represent, because the general public  will not be part of the tiny “in group” using a given “season word” book.

Modern hokku, by great contrast, solves the matter of seasonal association of a verse in a remarkably simple, practical, and straightforward manner.  By doing so it maintains the virtues of the traditional seasonal connection of old hokku without the needless and rather pointless complexities and eccentricities of creating new “Western” season words and season books.

The modern hokku system is simply to mark each verse with the season in which it is written.  A writer will categorize all of his or her hokku by these seasonal markings into the categories of “Spring,” “Summer,”  “Autumn” (or “Fall”), and “Winter.”  When a verse is shared or published, the seasonal categorization goes with it.  It is such an eminently useful and practical and productive system that writers should immediately see its superiority to the old “season words” system.

As we have seen, the real subject of every hokku is its season.  The four-word seasonal categorization system simply utilizes this fact.  So if one were to use Bashō’s hokku as an example, it would appear like this when written:

SPRING

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

And of course if it were to appear in an anthology, all “Spring” verses would appear under that initial heading, and the same procedure would follow with Summer, Autumn, and Winter categories.

Somewhat astonishingly, this reduces the thousands of season words necessary to reading and writing hokku with any comprehension under the old system to simply four — Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter — and these function simply as headings for a single verse or for an anthology of verses.

Thus in one fell swoop modern hokku demolishes and improves upon the season word system that caused so much needless complexity in old hokku and that continues to be pointlessly revived with its needless complexities in some segments of modern haiku.  Yet in doing so it does not abandon the essence of the matter — it retains firmly and with great practicality the indissoluble link between hokku and the seasons.  That has always been the practice in modern hokku in English:  To preserve the essence of old hokku at its best, without being slavishly literal in its transmission.  That is why modern hokku in English can be thoroughly American or British or Australian or Indian, etc., without abandoning the genuine essentials of hokku, and without any need for maintaining any of the culturally-limited baggage that potentially so hinders the verse form in its transmission from one culture to another and very different culture.

David

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Someone expressed the view to me recently that the haiku and tanka “communities” are strongly biased against any traditional approach.  By “communities,” he means of course those people who gather on the Internet or in publications to share and read and discuss those particular forms of verse.  And by “biased,” he means that those communities have a marked tendency to scorn the writing of such verses according to the traditional standards.

It is not news to me.  When I first began to tell people in the modern haiku communities that they were being misled, that Bashō and all the rest prior to Shiki did not write haiku but hokku, and that most of what is found on modern haiku sites has nothing in common with what Bashō and the others wrote but brevity, there was a furious uproar.  And some of those most upset were those who had managed to construct little nests for themselves high in the diminutive tree of the modern haiku hierarchy by putting themselves forward as authorities.

The observant quickly learn, however, that in the field of modern haiku there are authority figures, but not genuine authorities.  There is a site on the Internet, populated by a very small number of people, calling itself the “Haiku Foundation.”  It now has a forum where newcomers may come and ask questions of “mentors,” who, to judge from the answers given, are simply making it up as they go along, because the essence of modern haiku is doing whatever one wishes to do, writing however one wishes to write.  There are no universal standards in modern haiku other than perhaps brevity and the avoidance of universal standards.

That is a far cry from the hokku, which had and still has very definite standards of form and aesthetic.

Returning to the statement that such groups are biased against traditional approaches, one finds that only confirmed in the steadfast opposition of modern haiku groups to any return to the traditional hokku.  And opposition always follows a fixed, almost ritualistic pattern.  It is the same outcry today as it was many years ago when I first began telling the then-existing modern haiku groups that they had it all wrong and were on the wrong road if they wished to be considered in the same lineage as the old hokku writers of Japan.  Their standard response was, “You cannot tell me how to write!  Poetry must be free, and I’ll write haiku however I want to write it!”

Of course this is a very confused objection.  To write hokku in essentially the traditional manner has nothing to do with limiting poetry; it only limits one to calling a thing by its real name.  And even that is something to which modern haiku groups have a great aversion — note how they persist in incorrectly and anachronistically calling pre-Shiki hokku “haiku,” as though doing so somehow justifies the modern mediocrities they write while claiming to follow in Bashō’s wake.

It is sheer pretention and obfuscation that makes the modern haiku enthusiasts take up the irrelevant refrain that there should be no limits on poetry.  That is a cry as old as William Blake, who wrote, correctly, that “Poetry Fetter’d Fetters the Human Race!”

Limiting poetry is not the issue.  No one is telling them they cannot write poetry of any kind or level whatsoever.  The real issue at hand is whether the bulk of modern haiku is verse in the same tradition as that of Bashō and Gyōdai and Buson and all the rest, and I say it is not.  It is, instead, a mid-20th century creation of Western writers who misperceived and misunderstood the hokku when they first encountered it in translation, and consequently re-made it according to their own misconceptions.

The modern English-language haiku  was born at roughly the same time that circumstances were moving toward the outbreak of the Vietnam War.  And those who created it — the writers in printed anthologies, the self-made pundits — did not follow the aesthetics and techniques of the old hokku or even of Shiki’s conservative innovation the “haiku” (which was still hokku in all but name).  Instead they created the modern haiku according to the principles and presuppositions popular in 20th-century Western poetry in the first half of the 20th century.  That is why one often finds elements characteristic of modern haiku that were long ago considered to be “new” in the verses of poets such as Cummings, but that are now as much a part of the past as the dial telephone.

It is important to repeat that the modern haiku enthusiasts mistake the issue.  It is not whether one is to write poetry however one wishes.  All are free to do that.  It is whether one is going to call something by its correct name so that it may be defined and understood.

That is a simple matter.  If one goes to a bakery and requests a loaf of bread but is handed a chocolate eclair instead, one need only tell the baker that there is a mistake, that what was desired was a loaf of bread.  But a problem arises if the baker replies, “Oh, this is a loaf of bread!  We just choose to make it differently, because of the freedom inherent in baking!”

We would consider such a person an intolerable fool, and so should we consider those who say, “Oh, a haiku is just a hokku under another name.  Haiku is the NEW name for it, and we can write it however we wish now.”

If one wants a loaf of bread, the phrase “loaf of bread” has to have a definite meaning.  It cannot signify a chocolate eclair or a pizza or a doughnut with sprinkles. The fact that all contain flour does not make them the same thing.  Nor does the simple fact that both modern haiku and all the verses written as hokku before Shiki are brief mean that modern haiku are in the same lineage as the old hokku, or even in the same lineage as Shiki’s understanding of the haiku.

Modern haiku today is essentially a little free-verse poem, generally without rhyme and often without meter, in (usually) three lines.  That it is called a “haiku” is simply an historical oddity.   It should not imply that the modern haiku and what Shiki knew as the haiku are in any way the same, just as a pizza is not a loaf of bread, though they have flour in common.

Since at least the 1960s, the modern haiku communites have been busily working the destruction of the haiku both by scorning the traditions of the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku, and by continually changing the manner in which modern haiku is written by personal whim, so that today a modern haiku is often just an appalling little mediocrity created to make this or that bored housewife or failed academic think he or she is a “poet.”  It is not the haiku of Shiki, nor is it the hokku that existed in the centuries prior to Shiki, nor is it the hokku written today in modern English.

It surprises some people when I tell them that Shiki’s “haiku” was largely a propaganda campaign, and that what he wrote was essentially still hokku.  His verses, for the most part, still had Nature and the place of humans within Nature as their subject matter, and they were still, for the most part, set in the context of a particular season.

Modern haiku is often not about Nature and the place of humans within Nature.  It is often not set in any seasonal context.  And it frequently introduces elements not only unacceptable to the hokku and the traditional haiku (Shiki’s haiku), but also antithetical to it, such as romance, sex, violence, and modern technology.

All of this of course does not mean that anyone is prevented from writing brief verses about romance, sex, violence, and modern technology not set in any particular season and not focused on Nature and humans within Nature.  It just means that such verses are not in the old hokku tradition that preceded Shiki, and they are not in the hokku tradition of Shiki.  Instead they are new Western verse in the “tradition,” if one can call it that, of those who misconstrued and misunderstood both the hokku and Shiki’s haiku in the middle of the 20th century, and one wishes that all would simply recognize that fact and stop pretending that they have anything to do with either the old hokku tradition of Japan or the kind of haiku advocated and written by Masaoka Shiki around the beginning of the 20th century.

There are those in the modern haiku communities who advocate dropping the term “haiku” for the modern pseudo-hokku and pseudo-haiku verses commonly now called “haiku.”  Well, it might as well happen, because modern haiku has thoroughly self-destructed by its refusal to accept the standards of the lineage it claims to follow.  Now that it has pushed the “hokku” name from public notice and has thoroughly discredited the “haiku” name, it might as well move on, having destroyed what it was claiming to promote.

Modern haiku in English is not taken seriously today by anyone except those few who write and read it.  The old hokku, however, whether mislabeled “haiku” or not, continues to demonstrate, even if in translation, the virtues of the old tradition for anyone who has eyes to see and the poetic sense to understand.

David

HOKKU, HAIKU, HACKETT, HISTORY AND ZEN

Here  — for convenience — I have combined and slightly revised several earlier articles explaining how Western haiku enthusiasts thoroughly confused hokku and haiku in the 20th century, completely misunderstanding not only hokku but its connection to “Zen,” and thoroughly misleading the public in the process by inaccurate and anachronistic use of terminology.  Unfortunately many in the modern haiku community continue to promote these fictions and misrepresentations even in the 21st century, and one must repeatedly correct their errors so that an unsuspecting public will not be taken in by them.  The originals of these articles will be found separately in the archives.  The linking of several related articles together here accounts for the repetition of certain key points.

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Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that the hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until after it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that is well known to be a mistake among scholars.  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology. Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from it spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences in which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, a hokku could appear either as an independent verse or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines. In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse divided into three lines.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of  bickering.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde, revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread and far more recent haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is generally viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use. Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte

As readers here know, I do not teach or advocate haiku, so some explanation is necessary for even discussing it on a site largely devoted to the hokku.

As previously mentioned, the modern haiku community has from its inception confused the hokku with Shiki’s revisionist term “haiku.” But Bashō and Gyōdai, Buson and Issa did not write “haiku.”  They called what they wrote hokku, within the wider context of haikai, just as we do today.  That is an easily verifiable, historical fact.  And when hokku was tentatively introduced to the West, it was known here as hokku too, though it was misunderstood in Europe and America from its first appearance, and was mistakenly viewed in terms of Western notions of poets and poetry, quite contrary to its essential nature.

To confuse matters even more, hokku (as Japanese hokku in translation) was not really popularized in the West until the middle of the 20th century, at which time it became widely known through the works of Reginald Horace Blyth, and to a lesser extent those of Harold Gould Henderson.

Unfortunately, Blyth chose to put aside the historically correct term for the subject — hokku — and used instead the revisionist term then current in his Japan of the mid 1900s — “haiku.”  Henderson, a lesser light, did the same.

This unfortunate choice has been the source of endless confusion and misunderstanding, because almost all of what Blyth wrote about in his monumental “Haiku” volumes (all six of them) was really hokku, not haiku.  But when Blyth first began writing, he assumed that the hokku was dead, that he was penning a kind of loving post-mortem.

But by the time he was finishing the last of these works years later, Blyth saw faint hints of a revival in, of all places, the English-speaking West, and it was his own writings that were largely responsible for this new interest, which he hastened to encourage.  But again Blyth made a serious mistake in not providing simple, straightforward, clear, detailed, and systematic guidance on how a hokku was to be written, practically and aesthetically.  Instead, though he provided a treasure in his commentaries, he left far to much up to a reading public too impatient and unprepared to take advantage of Blyth’s unsystematic if penetrating presentation of the matter. The unfortunate and unanticipated result of this error in judgment is the modern haiku.

Harold Henderson made the same disastrous mistake, suggesting that it would be the “poets” themselves who would decide how the “haiku” (by which Henderson, like Blyth, really meant the hokku) would be written in English.  Both Blyth and Henderson failed to realize that Westerners were totally unprepared for the task, having virtually no understanding of hokku aesthetics and how they were to be applied in verse.

Inevitably, Westerners projected their own misperceptions of the hokku onto the Western haiku, and thus mischief was immediately afoot, and all the better efforts of Blyth and Henderson came to naught as Westerners promptly set themselves to remaking the hokku in their own images as the new, English-language “haiku.”

Thus, virtually at the beginning of the Western haiku movement, the damage by misuse of terminology had already been done, so the movement that began in the West in Blyth’s time was indeed a “haiku” movement, not a hokku movement.  And its aesthetics were Western self-made “haiku” aesthetics, based on Western poetic conventions, not on those of the hokku.

It seems odd now that neither Blyth nor Henderson recognized sufficiently that those who had become interested in writing “haiku” really had not the slightest idea how to go about it, and that letting such individuals set the future course of the verse form was just as illogical as making a child newly arrived on a ship its captain.  In retrospect that is today all too obvious.

Western novices compounded the problem by virtually ignoring Blyth’s illuminating commentaries, and instead of remedying that deficiency by systematically studying old hokku to determine its form and aesthetics, they began plunging recklessly and headlong into writing a new kind of verse based not on hokku but on their personal misunderstandings and misperceptions of hokku, calling it “haiku.” The results, generally, were astonishing in their mediocrity.  But really, what else could one expect?

That is the beginning of the Western haiku movement in a nutshell.  And those setting the course of the Western haiku movement — generally chose to ignore Blyth and to ignore Henderson’s warnings and cautions, preferring to go their own various ways, remolding the hokku to fit what they thought their new “haiku” in English should be, and endlessly confusing the general public in the process by misapplication of terminology and misinterpretation of hokku aesthetics and form, making up their own standards even as they presented them to the general public.

All of this is merely a lead-in to some further words on James W. Hackett.  Previously I wrote that Hackett’s efforts to turn back time to a fictional “golden age” of Western haiku are likely to have no impact at all on the modern haiku community because that community will, as a whole, consider Hackett merely antiquated in his views, a human telegraph lingering on in the cell phone age, bypassed by time and events.    I pointed out that haiku in the West never had a golden age, because it was distorted from its very beginnings. That needs a further bit of explanation.

If the West had paid close and studious attention to the works of R. H. Blyth, it would have been possible for a Western hokku to quickly arise, even if mislabeled “haiku.”  But as we have seen, those who set the course of the Western haiku movement by writing books and journals and founding societies paid virtually no attention to Blyth’s aesthetic commentaries on hokku; instead they created a new Western verse form under the name “haiku.”

Those reading editions of such influential works as The Haiku Anthology by Cor van den Heuvel, which began appearing in the early 1970s, will see that this sleep of reason quickly brought forth monsters.  Even from its beginning, Western haiku diverged not only from hokku but even from the very conservative “haiku” written and advocated in Japan by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century, which was often hokku in all but name.  But then van den Heuvel  was involved with the Haiku Society of America, which in my view bears heavy responsibility for leading haiku off on erratic and subjective paths that took it quickly away both from the hokku and from the “Shiki-style” haiku, furthering the “aesthetic devolution” lamented by Hackett.

But back to Hackett.  It should not be surprising that devotees of modern haiku view him as spider-webby, dusty, and outmoded.  He did, after all, correspond with R. H. Blyth, which means he got his start at the very beginning of the popularization of  haiku in the West in the middle of the 20th century.  And even though Blyth himself gave Hackett a rather double-edged compliment, on the one hand calling his early verses “excellent” while on the other simultaneously writing that “more often there is too much ostensive, that is, overt thought” in them (History of Haiku, vol. 2, page 362), nonetheless that mention of Hackett by Blyth himself (along with inclusion of a few of Hackett’s verses, which became separately available in print in the West) puts Hackett in the category of the three first founders of Western haiku (a fourth writer at that time, Kenneth Yasuda, was far less influential, though reprints of his book The Japanese Haiku are still available).

Unfortunately it is not a happy society, because few have been so historically noted and so little heeded in the modern haiku movement as the triumvirate of Blyth, Henderson, and on a secondary level, Hackett.

My own view of Hackett’s “haiku” is that (as Blyth himself admitted with his backhanded compliment), Hackett did not quite get the aesthetics of the hokku.  Hackett was impressed with the “Zen” aspect of the hokku, but unfortunately this sometimes resulted in verses tainted too heavily with mid-20th century Western romanticization of Zen — a little like biscuits with too much baking powder, in which the effect should be there, but not the obvious taste.  And, as Blyth wrote, Hackett’s verses all too often have too much subjective intellectualization, too much “thinking” in them.

But really, that is the worst one can legitimately say of Hackett.  When one reads his essay bemoaning what haiku has become, one sees that if readers in the modern haiku community were to follow the more sensible of his suggestions, haiku would be reformed for the better, at least as far as its relation to the hokku.

That is not, however, going to happen.  Haiku was created in the West as a self-evolving kind of verse dependent on the whim of the individual writer for its form and standards, and Western writers — heavily invested in the poet as public ego — are not about to give that up for a nostalgic view of a past that never was, simply because it is presented to them by someone who wrote letters to Blyth over half a century ago.

In fact the modern haiku community as a whole has so little respect for Blyth at present that even its leading pundits regularly enjoy presenting his ideas as justly fallen into the dustbin of history.

It should be obvious, then, that I see Hackett’s attempt to reform haiku as futile, though not misguided.  Haiku is not hokku.  Haiku never was hokku, except perhaps in its earliest days in Japan when Shiki wrote his own brand of hokku and simply mislabeled it “haiku.”

But in the West — in English and in other European languages — haiku has always been a confused mess because people simply did not pay attention to what Blyth told them over and over again. Instead, like William J. Higginson, they preferred to remake it in their own image, following the popular Western notion of the poet as rebel and revolutionary.

Haiku as a whole follows in the same pattern today, and instead of attempting to change it back into something closer to the hokku, one must simply let it go on changing and evolving, though the tendency at present seems to be for it to evolve itself into sterility and ultimate extinction as anything other than a simplistic form of satirical verse.

All of which, fortunately, has not the slightest effect on our practice of the hokku as a continuation in the modern world of the old hokku tradition of Japan.  Hokku never devolved precisely because it maintains the essentials of the aesthetics and principles and techniques of the old hokku, though presenting them in modern language to the modern world.

The student of hokku, happily, is not faced with the subjective chaos and fragmentation so obvious in modern haiku.  But then hokku and haiku have gone their separate ways, and have today quite different approaches both to aesthetics and to life.

One cannot, therefore, say that James Hackett is wrong in wanting to return haiku to an aesthetic closer to his own, but one can be reasonably certain it is never going to happen.  Fortunately, for those who do not want to be taken on the wild, ego-stimulating, argumentative ride of modern haiku societies and journals and Internet forums, there is still the peace, tranquility, and closeness to Nature of the hokku, ever old, ever new.

It will be obvious to the reader by this point that I have a very low general opinion of modern haiku.  Nonetheless, I feel one should accept reality, realizing that it exists as a new category of Western verse created in the 20th century, — if a vague and ill-defined category manipulated largely by amateurs, dabblers, and the ego-infatuated,  and one should admit that it has an appeal for most Westerners that hokku simply does not have.  That is because it demands so little of both writer and reader.  So the haiku fits well into a society fascinated by the disposable and the shoddy.

That is because the goals of modern Western society are in general so remote from the Nature-centered, spiritual goals of the hokku that most people have no attraction to the kind of verses written by Onitsura and Bashō.  Like Blyth, and no doubt like Hackett, I see this as a serious flaw in modern society, something to be lamented instead of celebrated.  It is symptomatic of the serious sickness of spirit that plagues modern culture the world over.

That is why I hold with Blyth that in our present-day world, the Way of Hokku is a “hard way and a narrow way, and few there be that find it.”  But that is only because few there be that want to find it.

Let no one think I am criticizing James W. Hackett here.  I think the modern haiku community would vastly better itself by heeding his Jeremiad.  I may disagree with some details of his reform program for haiku and his aesthetics, yet I applaud his overall intention.  But I also feel quite certain that nothing is going to happen as a result of his efforts — that he will be, like Blyth and Henderson, virtually ignored by the majority of the Western haiku community (and so far, since Hackett published his article, that has in fact proven to be the result).  Hokku and haiku are likely to remain two quite different and separate and ever more widely diverging kinds of verse.

Rather than wasting time on trying to reverse history, it is better just to live a life of hokku and to let others do what they wish, which they always have done in any case and will continue to do.  Ultimately, one changes the world only by changing one’s self.

Over the years I have written about how hokku was hijacked in the middle of the 20th century by the haiku movement in the West.  One could write a sizable volume on the history of how that took place and which prominent names in 20th century (and some 21st) haiku were involved.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong in the appearance of a new verse form.  But one can and should legitimately object when a new verse form is misrepresented to the public as a continuation of an old verse form, which is precisely what the self-made pundits of modern haiku undertook from the 1960s onward. It is only recently that the public has begun to catch on to the fact that they have been had, that they are the victims of revisionism — that modern haiku is not a continuation of the old hokku as written by Taigi and Bashō and Onitsura and all the rest; instead it is a new verse form created out of the misperceiving and misrepresentation of hokku by writers in the 20th century.

Admittedly the public at large could hardly care less about all this, because numerically few are interested in modern haiku and even fewer in genuine hokku.  But for those of us who do care, it is very important to call attention to those writers in the 21st century who persist, for whatever reason, in inaccurately labeling old hokku as “haiku” and who continue to promulgate the fiction that what they are teaching continues the tradition of the old writers of hokku.

If one wants to learn modern haiku, one is perfectly free to pick up hints and tips from any number of books and Internet fora and blogs.  The range is vast and the standards so loose and flexible that one can write virtually anything one wishes and present it to the world as haiku as long as it is reasonably brief.

Hokku is quite a different matter.  Hokku has very definite principles and standards, and if one wishes to learn how to write it, one must thoroughly understand the aesthetics and construction of the old hokku written from the 16th to the 20th centuries.  It is not complicated, but it does involve a thorough re-thinking of one’s notions, a dropping of a great deal of inaccurate and unnecessary baggage picked up over the years from the misrepresentation of hokku as “haiku” by authors from the mid-20th century onward.

It requires  a re-orientation (no pun intended) of the writer toward a verse form that takes one away from the self and into Nature, a form that pays little heed to the ego of the writer or to what is commonly known as “self-expression.”  I sometimes introduce people to hokku through articles with titles such as “Hokku is Not What You Think it Is,” and that is quite true.  Most people really have no idea at all what hokku is, and that is not surprising after half a century of misperception and misrepresentation of it by propagandistic enthusiasts of modern haiku.

So what is hokku?  Read the articles in the archive on this site and you will begin to get a much clearer and more accurate picture than you have likely ever had from reading misinformation about it in books that incorrectly and anachronistically misrepresent it as “haiku.”

I have written many times 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.

As I have mentioned before, 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 am merely repeating myself.  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.  What he did was precisely this:

1.  Shiki removed hokku from its centuries-long position as the first and opening verse of a haikai verse sequence.  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.

Looked at objectively, Shiki really only made only one and one-half rather than two major changes, because hokku appearing independently were nothing remotely new, but really a very old practice.  In the old haikai, hokku could appear in at least three ways:  As part of a haikai sequence, 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 historical error.  What we can say is that Shiki began presenting the hokku independently under his new denomination “haiku.”

We are really left with only one major thing that Shiki did.  He made it impossible for the haiku to be written in the context of a linked verse (renga) sequence.

If we look at Shiki’s own “haiku,” we find that what he really did was just to take the hokku — which already could appear independently — and rename it “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.

Aside from this, what Shiki did was simply to initiate a trend of confusion that has continued up to the present.

It is true that when compared to older hokku, Shiki’s “haiku” are often shallow, and there is a particular reason for that, in fact two main reasons.  First, Shiki was an agnostic.  Old hokku was very much 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 look puzzled or say 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.

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 and Confucianist influences, and even a bit of animism.

There is a second and not unrelated reason for the 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 tend often to be merely two-dimensional, and lack 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 — shallow and illustrative hokku on the whole 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.

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 is so filled with 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 anger.  Amazingly, most had never even heard the word “hokku” before I rasied the issue.  One would have thought the anger would have been directed at those who had so misled them.  But there are still no doubt those in modern haiku who cannot forgive me for pointing out that they are not successors of Bashō, and that what they had picked up from the writings of 20th-century haiku pundits had more to do with the personal preferences of those self-made “authorities” than with anything practiced prior to the 20th century.

Today — at least — people in modern haiku are at last beginning to get the message that Bashō did not write haiku, nor did all the others before Shiki.  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 haiku of Shiki.

Once people begin to realize that “haiku” is an inaccurate and anachronistic and mistaken term when applied to the hokku tradition, and once they begin to realize that what nearly all the haiku teachers and authorities of the 20th century were teaching had little to do with Bashō and the entire old hokku tradition, then they can begin to see things realistically.  They can begin to learn what hokku really is, as opposed to its ersatz form, modern haiku.

Seen realistically, the modern haiku tradition in general has virtually nothing to do with all that was written prior to Shiki, or even — as we have seen — with what was written as “haiku” by Shiki himself.  Any verse form that abandons Nature, that abandons the connection with the seasons, that abandons the essentials and aesthetics of the old hokku,  is neither hokku nor even what Shiki meant by “haiku” when he brought it into being near the beginning of the 20th century.  Instead, modern haiku is for the most part a new Western brief verse form with remarkably fluid boundaries, and should be recognized as such.  The notion that it has anything to do do with Bashō or haikai or hokku  other than as an offshoot created through misunderstanding and misperception of the original will finally be recognized.

I must, however, add one disclaimer.  There are a few individuals in modern haiku today that do maintain some 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, influenced by Japanese haiku of the 20th century, follow aesthetics not quite those of the old hokku — there may be too much intellection or striving for “poetic” effect — and their verses tend to be 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, modern haiku in general.

As for the rest, it is as I have said.  Modern haiku has in general virtually nothing in common with the old hokku but brevity, and sometimes not even that.

Now what is the point in saying all this?  Is it perhaps just to irritate modern haiku enthusiasts?  Not at all.  The reason I take the time to write this — apart from historical accuracy — is simply that in order to learn hokku, one must distinguish it from 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.

Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

Haiku today — as distinct from hokku — is another matter.  There are some Zen-influenced writers of haiku, but in general modern haiku is completely removed from Zen, and in fact some writers and figures in the modern haiku community actually prefer that it be divorced completely from Zen and any kind of spirituality.  In this they differ radically from present day adherents of the hokku tradition, who regard non-dogmatic spirituality as inseparable from hokku.  Modern writers of hokku thus maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began — to Zen as meditative absorption.  That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.

Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself, he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called “haikai” renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of our hokku.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing our kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live by its standards, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence, and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

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

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and it is that which gives it its particular clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.

David

HOKKU IS NOT HAIKU, AND VICE-VERSA

From time to time I like to remind people why I use historically-accurate terminology here, instead of the inaccurate, anachronistic, and very misleading and confusing term “haiku.”  Bashō called what he wrote hokku, as a part of his practice of haikai; that was true whether the verses appeared independently or in linked verse or in travel journals.  The same is true of all writers of the verse form in the centuries prior to the 20th.  And of course those who write hokku rather than modern haiku today continue to use the same term  — hokku — as was used in past centuries.

Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify, yet the modern haiku establishment persists in trying to obscure it.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that among scholars is well known to be a mistake .  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology.  Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from its spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences of which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, hokku could appear either as independent verses or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the  hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines.  In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of not always well-suppressed anger among writers of modern haiku.  Haiku forums on the Internet are notorious for bickering and viciousness.  There are many reasons for this.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde, revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread new haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use.  Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte).

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

SPILLING THE MOON

In the previous posting I mentioned that many of Shiki’s “haiku” would still be classifiable as hokku, though they often tend to be illustrations.  But even among his illustrations some are better, some worse.

Here is one of his verses:

An isolated house;
The moon declining
Above the grasses.

Do you see why I say that such hokku are illustrations, like the block prints made by Hasui and Yoshida in the first half of the 20th century?

Now there is nothing wrong with illustration.  There is not even anything wrong with writing illustration-like hokku now and then.  But one should not make a principle of it.

A grade-school teacher could say, “Now for autumn, I want you to draw a house all by itself, with the moon declining over the grasses,” and it would make a good seasonal illustration.  Remember that Shiki did not abandon the connection of hokku with Nature and the seasons, though he did strain the connections occasionally.

People first learning hokku find it hard to make such distinctions between verses that are illustrations and verses with more depth.  But a good way to begin learning is by comparing the verse of Shiki with this hokku by Ryuho:

Scooping up
And spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

The writer stands before an old washbasin on an autumn night.  Lifting the water in both hands, he sees the moon in it — and then he spills the moon back into the basin.  Seen in comparison, Shiki’s verse is perceived to be rather flat and two-dimensional, and that was one of the flaws of his new aesthetic.  Remember that the best hokku show us ordinary things, but seen in a new way.

But of course even Shiki did not always follow his own ideals, and the old aesthetic was not completely lost in him, in spite of himself.  If haiku had stayed where Shiki placed it, it would have possibly remained just a variant of hokku.  However, it changed even more — so much that most haiku writers today have little in common with either hokku or with Shiki’s once-new “haiku.”

 

David

WHAT DID SHIKI REALLY DO?

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.

David