As readers here know, I do not teach or advocate haiku, so some explanation is necessary for even discussing it on a site devoted to the hokku.
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, just as we do today. That is an easily verifiable, historical fact. And when hokku was first 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 G. Henderson.
Unfortunately, Blyth chose not to emphasize the historically correct term for the subject — hokku — and used instead the revisionist term then current in the Japan of the mid 1900s — “haiku.” Henderson, a lesser light, did the same in his earliest book on the subject — The Bamboo Broom: an Introduction to Japanese Haiku (1934).
This unfortunate choice has come to be 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 (as he appreciated it) 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 (History of Haiku, Vol. 2, 1964), Blyth saw faint hints of a revival in, of all places, the English-speaking West, and it was his own earlier writings (Haiku, 4 vols., 1949-1952) 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.
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. To his credit, Henderson did caution against the kind of extreme changes to the form and aesthetics that we find in much of what is called “modern haiku” today. Already hearing the usual excuses of poetic freedom made for such distortions of the form, Henderson quoted G. K. Chesterton on freedom in the arts:
“...if you feel free to draw a camel without his hump, you may find that you are not free to draw a camel.”
And that was what modern haiku largely became — people composing verses as the “camel without his hump” — hokku without its proper aesthetics — no longer a “camel,” and certainly no longer hokku.
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 English-language “haiku.”
Thus, virtually at the beginning of the Western haiku movement, the damage of 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 and notions of poetry, not on those of the hokku.
It seems odd in retrospect that neither Blyth nor Henderson recognized sufficiently that the majority of Westerners 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.
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 — as Blyth and Henderson had done — “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. It is the result of those setting the course of the Western haiku movement generally choosing 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.
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 re-labeled 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, 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, though its historical tendency in the West seems to be for it to degenerate into sterility and near extinction as anything other than a simplistic form of satirical verse.
If you have doubts about that, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years, 2016) covering the last century (somewhat haphazardly) in the history of the Western haiku (not hokku) movement. When you see everything from a short poem by Ezra pound to one-line and even one-word poems called “haiku,” it is obvious that the definition of “haiku” has changed drastically since Shiki began using it near the end of the 19th century. One amateur reviewer, after reading the book, wrote, “The book almost gives the impression that haiku has devolved.” Quod erat demonstrandum.
It will be obvious to the reader that I have a very low general opinion of modern haiku. Nonetheless, it exists as a new category of Western verse created in the 20th century, and has an appeal for many Westerners that hokku does not have. That is because the goals of modern Western society are in general so remote from the Nature-centered, more spiritual goals of the hokku that most people have no attraction to the kind of verses written by Onitsura and Bashō. Like Blyth, 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.
While distinguishing it from hokku, one must let modern haiku follow its own course. It is best 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.