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Monday, January 25, 2010
Here is a sample article from my Hokku site (hokku.wordpress.com) 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. 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 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. 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 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. We can say, then, that 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 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, Confucianist, 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 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. 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 is it 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 — and at least one formal group — in modern haiku today that do maintain some relation to the old hokku, if not in name. Generally in the case of individuals, these are people who, though writing haiku, have been particularly influenced by pre-Shiki hokku. And in the case of the group — specifically the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society — it is a heavily Japanese-influenced group whose aesthetics are not quite those of the old hokku, but are very like the consevative haiku style of the 20th-century Japanese haiku write Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959). In many cases, these individuals and the group 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. David

Posted at 08:31 am by hokku

Wednesday, November 25, 2009
[Readers will find the bulk of my writing now at the following site: http://hokku.wordpress.com Those with an interest in hokku and its continuation in modern languages are welcome to visit me there] HOKKU IS NOT HAIKU AND VICE-VERSA 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. 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 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

Posted at 08:21 am by hokku

Saturday, January 31, 2009

As many of you already know, you will now find the bulk of my writing, old and new, at a different site:


 If you find that hokku and its Nature-centered" approach appeals to you, you are welcome to join me at the Wordpress.com site.  You will find much there about hokku, from lessons for beginners to help for the more advanced, and of course many, many verses with commentary.

There you will also find an introductory "About" note, which I shall repeat here with some changes, for your information:

Many years ago I noticed that hokku — the centuries-old Nature-based verse form — was in danger of being lost and forgotten entirely. People were not only mistakenly confusing it with brief verse forms that developed later historically, but they also had seemingly no longer any real knowledge of principles and standards of hokku.   

Consequently I began teaching hokku for English-speakers, retaining the essential principles of structure and content of the best of the old old hokku, while leaving aside the non-essential. 

Modern hokku as I teach it is a continuation of the old hokku tradition that reaches back as far as the 17th century, but is now presented in an English- language context and cultural environment.

Modern hokku retains its focus on Nature and the changing seasons, and remains rooted in the non-dogmatic spirituality of old hokku.  Because of those important differences, hokku today remains quite separate from other visually similar forms of brief verse, with which it should not be confused.

Hokku is an antidote to much that is wrong with our present world — the materiality, the selfishness, the greed and disrespect for Nature that have led us to the serious environmental and even social problems we face today. Hokku is a simple gift, but profound in its simplicity. If you find it speaks to your condition, I invite you to join me at the new site.

David Coomler

Posted at 10:54 am by hokku

Thursday, June 26, 2008


On that site you will find many articles about hokku old and new, explaining how to write it and what it is all about. 


Posted at 07:17 am by hokku

Monday, August 20, 2007

As background for writing hokku in English,  here are some of the best verses of the early writer Onitsura, as well as by two other early writers of hokku.  All are in my translation.


"Without reality there is no haikai."

Began composing verses at seven or eight years of age; later composed verses in the Teitoku manner, but after cosideration, realized that both the Teitoku and Danrin schools were trivial and shallow. He came to the conviction that makoto -- the sincerity/faithfulness to reality/honesty/truth of the writer, reflected in the verse -- was the fundamental principle of composition. He thus transformed a hokku that had formerly been a mere pastime into something simple yet profound.

Onitsura died at the age of 77. Unfortunately, he had only two or three untalented students to carry on his school, so after his death hokku was dominated by students of Bashô.


On the tips of the barley,
Spring frost.


In the garden,
Blooming whitely --
The camellia.


Blowing wind;
The buds of the plum
Cling tightly.


A spring day;
Sparrows bathing in the sand
Of the garden.


They bloom and then
We look and then
They fall and then....


With blossoms fallen,
Again it is quiet;
Enjô Temple.


Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.


No place
To throw the bathwater;
Chirping insects.


In the broken pot,
A water plaintain --
Slenderly blooming.


The leaping trout,
Clouds pass by.


Here! Here! I say,
But the firefly
Just flies away.


Swaying and rustling
The lotus leaves --
The pond tortoise.


With the cormorant,
My mind dives in and out of
The water.


Bellies of trout seen
In the river shallows.


Flowing water,
A cricket chirping in the bamboos--
Sôkoku Temple.


A cool wind;
The empty sky is filled
With the sound of pines.


Jutting up
Into the autumn sky --
Mount Fuji.


This autumn;
With no child on my knee,
Moon viewing.


Withered reeds --
The rippling waters
Of Naniwa Creek.


The wind of autumn
Blowing through;
People's faces.


Whoo! Whoo!
Goes the wind in the sky;
Winter peonies.


Learned hokku in the Teitoku School, and was influenced by the Danrin School and associated with writers of the Bashô school. Died at age 65.


A rainy day;
Someone passes the gate
Carrying irises.


1642 -1716
Studied Confucianism; learned hokku under Kigin, was friendly with Bashô. Died aged 74.


Spring too so brief;
The mountain rose whitens --
Lettuce turns bitter.


Only the melons
Know nothing of the storm;
The morning after.


My shadow
Accompanies me home;
The moonlit night.


Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 10:02 am by hokku

Sunday, August 12, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But hokku, as I have often said, is not really poetry as we commonly think of it.  And specifically, it is not a poetry of the mouth or the ear.  It is, rather, a verse of the eye.  Hokku are best read silently, whereas poetry may be with benefit read aloud.  Poetry is the verse of the tongue and the ear, Cerdd Davod  as it is called in that most mouth-and-ear-oriented language of poetry, Welsh -- the art of the tongue, or as Twm Morys so well puts it, "tongue-craft."

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.brunel.ac.uk/4042/entertext2.2/morys.pdf     Go to page 4.

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

Where does all this leave us with hokku?  Right back with the statement that hokku is not poetry as we conventionally understand it.  Hokku is not tongue-craft but rather the recording and transmission of a sensory experience.  Is it any wonder that English-language poets have paid hokku little attention,  and that what attention it did receive  was as the mutated haiku -- a Western hybrid mixed with Western notions of poetry?  In hokku the substance is more important than the form, and that is why the form itself -- that is the words -- are so quickly forgotten.  In poetry the form -- the words -- may rise higher than the substance and the sounds of the words have an effect transcending what may be the utter simplicity of their meaning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or it can work its sound magic on the depths of human existence:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

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


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


David Coomler
Copyright 2007 



Posted at 09:03 am by hokku

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Another autumn "fog" verse, this time by Taigi, one of the best of the old hokku writers:

River fog;
Urging the horse in --
The sound of water.

If one looks at how R. H. Blyth translated this verse, one can see both his intent and his brilliance:

The river mist;
Urging the horse into the water,
The sound of it.

Blyth's translations, while sometimes not what one might call literal, are nonetheless generally right on the mark in conveying the genuine "overall" meaning and spirit of a verse.

When Blyth began writing his series of books on hokku (which were unfortunately anachronistically labelled "haiku" -- the popular if inaccurate term in Japan in the 1930s-1960s), he did not intend to teach anyone how to write it.  His purpose was rather to look back into the old hokku of the past, and to convey to modern speakers of English the essence and significance of these verses through translations that would express their meaning directly, if not always literally.

Reading hokku had given Blyth great personal pleasure, and he wanted to convey something of that pleasure, and something of what had been lost over time, by presenting the old hokku to a "Western" audience.  Eventually, he also traced the history of hokku from its origins through its high points to its numerical burgeoning, but spiritual decline, after the revisions of Shiki largely replaced it with "haiku."  He considered it something wonderful from the past that had become, by his time,

"...an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely." (Shakespeare).

At the end he recognized that his earlier works had helped to kindle an interest in the verse form in English.  Unfortunately he did not live long enough to give proper guidance to those English speakers who were moved to try the verse in their own language.  That is why in his own works one finds only hints (but good ones!) and gentle criticism such as his remarks on the verses written by J. W. Hackett that were included near the end of Blyth's second volume of the History of Haiku:

"in these excellent verses, occasionally there is sensation only; more often there is too much ostensive, that is, overt thought." (bold type mine)

If only the readers of Blyth's works had paid attention to what he said and had not just flipped through the pages reading the verses!  Then the history of the verse form from his time onward might have been different.

I want to take a moment at the end of this posting to thank those who leave comments on this site.  It is always interesting to see remarks from others interested or involved in hokku.

Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 11:41 am by hokku

Saturday, June 30, 2007

An autumn verse by Buson:

Morning fog:
The sound of pounding a stake --
Pum! Pum!

Use of words that sound like a sound itself -- technically called onomatopoeia -- is often found in old hokku.  Though put into English, if you read this verse you will hear the striking of the stake in lines two and three -- sound! pounding! stake! Pum! Pum!

It is if anything even more effective in English than in the original language.

We are not told who is pounding the stake or why.  We know it is not the writer, because the morning fog is included to hide the person pounding.  All we have is the cool, dense fog of morning, and from somewhere in the fog we hear the Pum! Pum! of a mallet against a stake.

That is the whole point of the verse -- the sudden sound emerging out of the fog that hides the action -- the hardness of the sound against the softness of the fog.


Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 06:58 pm by hokku

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A summer hokku by Shôhaku:

The silence;
A chestnut leaf sinks
In the clear water.

We have already discussed how one part of a hokku is often reflected in the other part. Here the purity and clarity of the silence is reflected in the purity and clarity of the water through which a single chestnut leaf sinks. This is the purity and clarity of the silent mind as well.

It is this stillness, this clarity, that makes the sinking of the leaf significant in a way that transcends our usual notions of significance and worth.


Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 12:13 pm by hokku

Friday, June 22, 2007

Shiki, who brought into popular use the term "haiku" for his revision of the older hokku near the beginning of the 20th century, did not really understand hokku, which is why he thought it should be a kind of sketch from Nature -- at least, unlike many modern writers of haiku, he retained the connection to Nature!

His lack of understanding led to many verses which, while not displeasing, lack depth.  Shiki's "haiku" was essentially a little picture in words, and we see that here:

A horse
Tied to a low tree;
The summer fields.

Contrast that with a verse of Buson, not at all a sketch or illustration, but rather a sensory experience:

Crossing the summer river,
Sandals in hand.

The coolness of the water in the warm air, the smoothness of pebbles and stones and sand underfoot, the contrast of warmth and cool wetness, all this -- and happiness!  That is Buson's sensory experience, and how much more strongly it affects us than Shiki's little picture drawn in words of a horse, a tree, a field.

It is unfortunate that so many emulated Shiki and carried his revisionism even farther, so that hokku nearly disappeared in the enthusiasm for change and the urge to write "haiku" without understanding what was being lost in discarding the hokku. 

Those of us who prefer the hokku are today in the minority, and that is just a part of the nearly universal tendency to abandon anything that takes time and effort to learn.  But just as Buson's verse is deeper than that of Shiki, hokku is generally deeper than the modern haiku.

Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 03:02 pm by hokku

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