HOKKU MISCONCEPTIONS, HOKKU FACTS

 

Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century.  Chief among them are these:

1.  The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th  century wrote “haiku”: 
They did not.  The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki.  Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku.  To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing.  So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.

2.  The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not.  
The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse.  Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter. 

The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles.  Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context.  Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.

Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:

  1.  Hokku is formulaic.
    That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku.  The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle.  So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics.  But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.

2.  In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true.  Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku.  For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex.  Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics.  That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse.  That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture.  Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.

What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so.  Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.”  It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.

In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics.  By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all.  It is the “quick and easy” choice.   However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.

 

David

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HOKKU AND A BIT BEYOND

The three-line hokku is a very useful format for expressing Nature.  But now and then, there are experiences that we may wish to extend slightly.


The following experience, for example, can be written in a longer or shorter form, with the difference here being only one word:

(Summer)

Morning:
Standing intently
In the sun-dappled stream —
The blue heron.

Or it could be simply:

(Summer)

Standing intently
In the sun-dappled stream —
The blue heron.

The second version is a hokku, the first is not, though both have much the same spirit.  The first just adds a specific time of day, which gives the verse a further layer or tone.  We can writer either way of course, depending on individual preference and which version we think best conveys the sensory experience without becoming too “wordy.”

 

David

THE SMELLS OF THINGS: CHARACTERISTICS OF HOKKU

There is a very simple but highly suggestive hokku by Bonchō :

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

That is the form in English.

As you know, a hokku expresses a season, either spring, summer, fall (autumn) or winter.  It is not difficult to tell that this is a summer hokku, because the word “summer” is included.  But not all Japanese hokku are that simple.  Different seasons traditionally had their different topics, and these became so complicated that a kind of “season word” or topic guide called a saijiki was used, so writers and readers could make sure what topics were appropriate for a given season.  In modern English hokku, however, we make the seasonal connection by simply labeling a hokku with its season, thus avoiding the needless complexity of season words, which took years to properly learn.

So that is the first characteristic of a hokku: a seasonal context.

The second characteristic of a hokku is a separation between the two parts.  Every hokku has a long part and a short part.  The long part may be at the beginning or at the end.  The two parts in Japanese hokku are separated by a so-called “cutting word.”  If we look at Bonchō ‘s hokku in transliterated Japanese, we can see an example:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki
town-center wa thing ‘s smell YA summer’ s moon

The cutting word here is ya, which has no real meaning in itself, but instead emphasizes what precedes it, giving the reader time to experience it.  And what the reader is experiencing here is the town and its smells, which in this case form the longer part of the hokku.  Then comes the separating ya, what we call in English the “meditative pause.”  After seeing and smelling the first part of the hokku, we then see that it is all taking place under natsu no tsuki — under the summer moon.

In English-language hokku, our equivalent of a cutting word is a punctuation mark.  Punctuation indicates the length and nature of the meditative pause.  The most common separating mark in hokku is the semicolon (;),  but other marks are used when appropriate.

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

Note that in English-language hokku, there may be several punctuation marks in a verse, but only one is the real separating mark between the two parts, in this case the semicolon.  Every English-language hokku ends with appropriate punctuation as well.  This was of course not the case in old Japanese hokku, which did not have punctuation, though modern everyday Japanese has adopted it.

The thing to remember, then, is that modern English-language hokku uses punctuation for the separating mark, as well as when helpful elsewhere in a hokku.  And all hokku end with a suitable punctuation mark.

You probably noticed that each line of the hokku in English begins with a capital letter.  This was not the case in Japanese hokku, because Japanese had no upper and lower case letters as we know them.  Instead, it was written in a mixture of characters borrowed from Chinese with Japanese phonetic symbols.  A Chinese character could have more than one syllable, like the word ichi (“town”) in Bonchō‘s hokku.  Japanese phonetic symbols made one phonetic unit each, like na, ka, wa, and so on.  In Japanese, n could also be considered a separate phonetic unit if it ended a word.  So these phonetic units are not precisely the same as syllables in English.

Given that the standard length of a hokku was seventeen phonetic units (though some were a bit more or less), people made the mistake of thinking that they should have seventeen syllables in English.  But that was impractical, because Japanese and English are very different languages.  In English-language hokku, we simply keep our verses brief and very simple, and that fits our language much better than a strict number of syllables.

A very obvious difference between old Japanese hokku and modern English-language hokku  is the lineation — how a verse is arranged in lines.  Old Japanese hokku were written and printed in one vertical line for general purposes.  But in English we separate them into three short lines.  This fits our horizontal writing system far better, and has a more pleasing appearance.

Here is what Bonchō‘s hokku would have looked like in printed Japanese.   I have added a transliteration and further information to the right of the characters and phonetic symbols.
ichi   (town) Chinese character

naka  (center)  Chinese character

は wa   (grammatical particle) phonetic symbol

mono (thing) Chinese character

no possessive word;  phonetic symbol

に ni-  phonetic symbol

 o-    phonetic symbol

 -i   ni-0-i = nioi (smell)

ya  cutting mark

夏  natsu  (summer) Chinese character

no possessive word; phonetic symbol

tsuki (moon) Chinese character

So that is a Japanese hokku.  As you see, there was a contrast between the borrowed Chinese characters, each one of which might be pronounced in Japanese with more than one syllable, and the Japanese phonetic symbols (hiragana), which could be joined in sequence to form multi-syllabic words.

Let’s look again at the verse in transliteration:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki

Ichinaka is actually two words written in Chinese characters:

ichi normally means “market.”  When followed by the character 中 naka (center) , it is generally understood to mean “town” — in a town, in the center of a town.  If we wanted to, we could use the “market” meaning, in which case we could read the verse as:

In the marketplace,
The smell of things;
The summer moon.

Or we might want to rearrange it as:

In the marketplace,
The smells of everything;
The summer moon.

I actually prefer the “marketplace” reading to the “town” reading.

Notice that in the first alternate translation, I wrote “smell,” but in the second it is “smells.”  Japanese hokku makes no such distinctions, because it did not have a plural form.  so nioi can be translated either “smell” or “smells,” whichever seems appropriate.

I constantly repeat here that hokku have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  So in hokku, humans are found in the wider context of Nature.  In Bonchō‘s verse, we have the very human town or marketplace, but it is seen beneath “the summer moon,” which shows that the human activities are set in the context of Nature, even though we are in a town.  Keep in mind also that a town in Boncho’s day (he died in 1714) would have been free of the smell of car exhaust fumes.  Everything would have been much more natural smelling, a mixture of many kinds of faint and strong odors, whether pleasant or unpleasant.

Most people know about modern haiku, which developed out of hokku, largely as a Western misunderstanding of its nature and aesthetics.  As such, modern haiku is very recent.  I hope you have noticed the differences between hokku and most everything that is called “haiku” today.  Because haiku is often also written in three lines, many people think they are the same, but they are not.  Though many writers do it, it is important not to mislabel hokku “haiku.”  Haiku as it is practiced today is largely the result of Western writers misunderstanding the hokku in the middle of the 20th century, while hokku is centuries older.

Most modern haiku does not express a particular season (there are a few that still use a seasonal connection, but they are greatly in the minority).

Modern haiku does not necessarily have Nature and humans as a part of its subject matter.  Haiku can be written about anything, including modern technology, romance, sex, violence, strong emotions, personal thoughts and ideas, politics, etc.   Hokku, by contrast, avoids modern technology, violence, sex, romance, and in general things that disturb the mind.

Most modern haiku do not have a definite system of punctuation.  Some use a perfunctory hyphen, others use no punctuation at all.

Most modern haiku avoid capitalization at the beginning of lines.

Most modern haiku permit abstract thinking or intellectualization.  Hokku stays with things, rather than ideas about things or using things as symbols or metaphors.  In general one can say hokku prefers the concrete, while haiku permits the abstract.

Hokku in general is non-egocentric, avoiding emphasis on “I,” “my,” or “me.”  Modern haiku often emphasizes the individual — “my boyfriend,” “my girlfriend” — as well as personal emotions and views.  Hokku treats the individual the same way it treats a bird circling in the sky or a smooth stone in a river — objectively rather than subjectively.

Those are a few of the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  It is important to know the difference, because hokku has a definite aesthetic approach that one must follow if the verse is to be a hokku, while in modern haiku, the aesthetics vary greatly from individual to individual, with each person deciding what a haiku should be and how it should be written.  Consequently, “haiku” today is a vague umbrella term for many kinds of brief verse, while hokku describes a particular kind of verse in English, with a particular form and a definite aesthetic.  On this site I deal with hokku, mentioning modern haiku only to avoid confusion.

 

David

 

MAKING HOKKU FROM A FROZEN SLOUGH

wintercattails

Today a reader (Christine from Tree Top Haiku) sent me a verse, and kindly gave me permission to use it in explaining the difference between English-language hokku and “haiku.”

There is so much variation in modern haiku that one generally has to use a particular example to show how it differs from hokku. So Christine’s original is only one example out of a very variable and wide umbrella category, but nonetheless it should prove useful to readers for some general “rules of thumb.”

Here is the original verse:

cat-tails shiver
in the frozen slough
collect drifting snow

The basic subject is good — cattails in a frozen slough with snow. Like hokku, it has Nature as its subject and it is obviously a seasonal verse, which in hokku we would classify as winter.

There are two aspects to hokku — the form and the content. Unlike haiku, in hokku each line begins with a capital letter, and the whole verse ends with a punctuation mark. But there is also the very important punctuation mark that separates the two parts of a hokku — the longer and the shorter.

If we look again at the original, we can see that it has no such clear separation, in fact it does not have two distinct parts as does hokku:

cat-tails shiver
in the frozen slough
collect drifting snow

There is also a content problem. The word “shiver” can give the impression that the cattails behave like humans and “shiver” in the cold. In hokku we try to avoid words that make things like cattails appear to behave like humans, dogs, etc. It is also not quite clear what is meant by “collect” drifting snow. It appears to refer to the cattails, but just how they “collect” snow is vague. Does it gather on the tops? Does it gather at the base? Or both?

In hokku it helps to avoid vagueness, because a hokku is in essence a sensory experience in the mind, created by reading the verse. If the verse is not clear, it makes it difficult for the reader to “get it,” to have the experience.

The problem with this verse then, from the hokku perspective, is not in the subject but in the presentation. If we were to make a hokku from the same basic subject, there are a number of possibilities. Let’s look at one, so that we may see how a hokku differs from the “haiku” original:

The frozen slough;
Snow blows in drifts
Among the cattails.

As you can see, the verse is now in hokku format. Each line begins with a capital letter. It ends with a period. And the very important punctuation mark that separates the longer and shorter part of the hokku is there.

It is easy now to see that the shorter part is The frozen slough. And that the longer part is Snow blows in drifts Among the cattails. This enables the reader to more vividly and clearly experience the verse.

If we consider the often helpful “setting, subject, action” formula in composing the hokku, we can say this:

The setting is: The frozen slough;
The subject is: Snow;
And the action is: blows in drifts among the cattails.

That gives us a feeling of unity and harmony missing in the original, and makes it easy for the reader to assimilate.

If we want to put the emphasis in a slightly different place, we might try another version, like this:

Cattails bending
In the snowy wind;
The frozen slough.

This time the longer part of the hokku comes first, and the shorter part second, and the punctuation mark (a semicolon) is there to separate them.  An important purpose of the separating mark is to give the reader a meditative moment in which to experience the first part of the hokku before moving on to the second.

You can see that the way we use the elements in the second example has also changed.

The setting now is: The frozen slough (but it comes last this time);
The subject is: Cattails;
And the action is: bending in the snowy wind.

So that is how to take the basic elements and make a hokku of them, rather than a “haiku.” But keep in mind that it is only possible because the original, though not a hokku, had two necessary characterics that allow one to make a hokku:  It had Nature as its subject matter, and it had a seasonal context, winter in this case.

Unlike Christine’s example, many modern haiku do not have Nature or the place of humans as a part of Nature as their subject; nor are they set in a particular season. Without those essentials, one cannot make a hokku.

This is probably a good place to remind everyone that though modern English-language “haiku” was inspired by old Japanese hokku, it was created largely as a misunderstanding of the nature of hokku — a misunderstanding and misperception that really got under way in the 1960s, even though it began earlier. Since then much “haiku” has moved even farther away from hokku, so far in fact that now a “haiku” is most any kind of brief verse that its writer chooses to give that name.

Modern hokku, by contrast, still retains the basic essentials of the old hokku — its subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. Its context is a given season. And as you see, it has a definite form — a longer part separated from a shorter part by appropriate punctuation. And the first letter of each line is capitalized in English-language hokku, and the verse ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.

As you know from earlier postings, when a hokku is written, it is always classified by season, and that classification goes with it when shared. That enables the verse to be read in the correct season, and it also enables a verse to be placed in the correct season when included in an anthology with other verses. In old Japanese hokku, verses were classified according to season by the use of certain topics in the verse. That system became gradually more and more complex and unwieldy — and thus un-hokku-like in its complexity — so today we simply head the hokku with the appropriate seasonal classification when shared, like this:

(Winter)

The frozen slough;
Snow blows in drifts
Among the cattails.

It is important to note that the same principles used here to make a hokku from Christine’s original apply also, of course, to making a hokku from any original experience of Nature. So when you have an experience that moves you, you can just reduce it to its essentials, as I did here. We started with:

A frozen slough
Cattails
Snow

We added the wind to those ingredients. In the first hokku we indicated the wind by the word “blows,” and in the second hokku we actually wrote “wind.”

You can apply this principle to any original hokku experience in Nature.  First, reduce it to its basic elements, and then all you need do is arrange those elements in a way that creates a sense of unity and harmony, putting them into the hokku form as you do so.

Writing hokku is not difficult. It just requires one to learn the principles of form and content, and to absorb the proper “spirit,” the right atmosphere for a hokku, which is often very different from that found in modern haiku. Fortunately, Christine’s example (thanks, Christine!) had a good subject base with which to begin — a strong experience of Nature in a seasonal context — one that really expresses the character of the season. All that was needed was to harmonize and unify the content by putting it into the hokku format.

By the way, if you are American you will commonly hear “slough” pronounced as sloo (rhymes with “boo”) while in Britain the usual pronunciation is slau (rhymes with plow).

David

SPRING CONTRAST, SPRING SIMILARITY

Here is a variation on a hokku by Buson:

The heavy doors
Of a temple gate close;
The spring evening.

What is behind appreciation of this verse?

First, it is set in the season of spring, which is a time of new beginnings, freshness, and growth. But in contrast to this, we see the heavy, old wooden doors of a temple creaking shut. The weight of the doors is in contrast to the physical lightness of spring. The age of the doors, which being temple doors means they are quite old, is also in contrast with the newness of spring. Further, the time of the hokku is evening, when light (Yang) gradually gives way to darkness (Yin).

Now we know that spring, in the cycle of Yin and Yang, is increasing Yang. Evening, on the other hand, is increasing Yin. The weight of the doors is a downward, passive pressure, another Yin impression.

Obviously this verse uses harmony of contrast, a common hokku technique. The point of the verse is the combination of spring, the time of beginnings, with the closing of the great doors and the coming of evening, both “ending” events. So in this one brief verse we have Yin contrasted with Yang, beginnings contrasted with endings, and that is what gives the verse its effect.

In it we feel that even in the freshness of spring, there is already the sense of impermanence and things aging and ending.

That is how to understand hokku. A hokku, you will recall, expresses a season through an event happening in that season. And in this hokku we feel the sense of transience that is so essential a part of both life and of hokku.

Here is another variation on the same verse:

The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close;
Spring is ending.

In spite of the setting still being spring, the effect now is predominantly a harmony of similarity: the closing of the great doors (at the end of the day), and the ending of spring. Now the weight of the great doors reflects our feelings of reluctance, our sense of time’s inexorable passing, at the departing of spring.

All of that in three short lines, eleven words, fourteen syllables.

We could rephrase the second variation, like this:

Spring ending;
The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close.

That way it flows a bit more smoothly.

David