Simply Haiku: An E-Journal – Interview with David Barnhill
RW: Haikai, Hokku, and Haiku. These terms can be confusing. Please explain. Is there a difference between the terms?

DB: Haikai means something like “comic” or “vulgar,” something that does not fit the strict confines of courtly culture. Renga (linked verse) had been a courtly verse, but some wanted to break the mold and expand the range of renga, and so haikai no renga was developed. Basho’s genius was his combination of that free-spiritedness with aesthetic and religious depth. Sometimes he used the term haikai as a broader term for literary art, even art in general, if it had this more complex haikai spirit. So we can think of him as a haikai (not haiku) poet. Hokku, on the other hand, is the opening stanza of a renga sequence. It was so important that it eventually began to take on a life of its own, with poets writing just the hokku without the linked sequence. Basho wrote hokku (not haiku) poems. The great modern poet Shiki wanted to sever hokku from its function in a linked verse, and he emphasized the aesthetic of a “sketch” of a moment of nature. To indicate this change, he used a new term, haiku, for what had been called hokku. So haiku is a modern term Basho did not use. But the term haiku is ingrained in our culture, even when thinking of Basho. The result is indeed confusion. If we want to be historically correct, we should speak of Basho’s hokku. But haiku is the only single term we could use for what Basho wrote and what contemporary poets in Japan and around the world write. I use hokku when I’m in an academic context, haiku when I’m not. We certainly don’t want to get too hung up on terminology.

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