Many of you probably do not know that I wrote a book with a long-time friend of mine, the account of his years growing up in China. It begins before the Communist Revolution and continues into the terrible upheaval that was known euphemistically as the “Great Cultural Revolution.” He related it to me in many conversations, and I made a book of it.

If you are like me, you probably have little interest in politics but a lot of interest in human rights and freedom of thought and of speech. What would you do if your rights were ripped away? What if you could not speak freely, if you had to watch every word uttered to another person, and found you had to be wary of what you said even to many who were supposed to be friends? What if such a simple act as complaining about the heat of the sun on your neck while working was taken by those in authority as treasonous, and you were punished accordingly? What if your house was invaded, your belongings stolen, all with government approval, and you were forcibly shipped far into a remote, strange and barren countryside?

I found that my friend had personally experienced the living hell that China became in those days. He learned firsthand what it is like to exist under a totalitarian regime that permits no dissension, punishes at will, and practices the most blatant forms of mind control.

Nonetheless, in spite of the darkness of those years, in spite of the suffering and betrayal, on his long odyssey through China he encountered rare people now and then, individuals like sparks of light in the shadows, people who helped him to endure.

I hope that those of you who have devices on which to read digital books will read this account. Because I want as many to read it as possible, I made it available at a deliberately very low cost through such places as Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Ebookit.com, etc. I think it will be quite different than anything you have previously encountered.

The book is called A Time of Ghosts. You will find it listed under both my friend’s name (Hok-Pang Tang) and mine (David Coomler) If you read it, you will know why I consider it to be a very significant and important story of one man adrift amid a sea of sorrows in Communist China, one story that has survived out of countless personal stories of that period that have not.

It took a long, long time and a great deal of work to write this book. I devoted so much time and labor to it because I felt the story of Hok-Pang Tang’s life to be not only of historical significance but also a remarkable and enthralling tale of human endurance, a story that should not be lost.

I hope you will read it. And after you read it, I would very much like to know your reaction. If you check the entry on Amazon.com, you will see that it has received excellent reader reviews.


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It is that time of the year again. Nederland (the Netherlands) is having its annual controversy over Zwarte Piet, the very black fellow with bright clothing, ruffed collar, brilliant red smile and golden earrings who follows St. Nicholas around and does his dirty work. Or rather who once did his dirty work, leaving coals in the stockings of misbehaving children on St. Nicholas day, or threatening to pop them in his sack and take them back to Spain or to Turkey, where St. Nicholas was originally from. Now he is more likely to dance happily around with numbers of Zwarte Piet clones, dispensing pepernoten (a kind of cookie) to children and being a jolly and charming figure. Zwarte Piet has grown soft.

I don’t want to get involved in the controversy over whether Zwarte Piet (“Black Piet”) is a racist figure. As with many things, it is in the eye of the beholder. He is racist to those who see him as such, and a beloved folk character to those who do not — de geliefde helper van Sinterklaas — “the beloved helper of St. Nicholas.” Perceptions differ, and the outcome is up to the Dutch. In one form or another, he will likely survive.

Zwarte Piet, however, is just one manifestation of the “helper” characters who appear in the calendar period from mid November into the Yuletide season, and they reveal how the celebrations of this time of year have picked up all kinds of accretions over the centuries.

St. Nicholas — through his more secular incarnation as Santa Claus — has become intimately associated with the Christmas celebration in the United States and a number of other countries. Originally, however, he had nothing to do with Christmas. He was a popular saint who was believed to multitask in helping everyone from sailors to merchants, and in Russia one could consider him THE most prominent religious figure after Jesus and Mary.

Oddly enough, almost all of his biography is fictional. He may well have been a 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now Turkey), but everything else about him is highly to obviously dubious. Nonetheless, as we have seen, he became a prominent saint in the days when the veneration of saints and prayers to them were an accepted practice.

In the Netherlands he made his annual appearance on December 6th, arriving from Spain (a detail that entered the story due to the previous Spanish — and Catholic — invasion of the Netherlands). In spite of the fact that the Dutch became largely Calvinist Protestant, the St. Nicholas celebration was retained, and on St. Nicholas Eve he visited houses to stand in judgment on which children had been good and which bad. The good were rewarded, and the bad might receive a coal instead of a gift, or be threatened with abduction by Zwarte Piet.

Go southeast however, into places like Austria and the Czech Republic, and the helper of St. Nicholas takes on a different guise. He is no longer a “moor” like Zwarte Piet; instead he is a large and frightening hairy, bestial figure with long, goat-like horns on his head, and a very long and red tongue; he is the terrifying Krampus, sometimes with one foot a hoof and the other like a clawed bear paw. He carries switches and chains, but sometimes also a basket with fruits for well-behaved children.

Here is an illustration of Krampus menacing an obviously worried child, from a 1900 Austrian postcard. The inscription reads “GREETINGS FROM THE KRAMPUS.”

The Krampus traditionally appears on the 5th of December, which you will recall is the old St. Nicholas Eve. In some regions large numbers of Krampuses wander the streets and byways, jingling with cowbells, striking at those they encounter with their switches. Some even carry wooden tubs like a grape-picker’s tub on their backs, just the right size to fill with a naughty child to be carried off. Their procession through the streets is called the Krampuslauf. Just what the Krampus looks like varies from place to place.

Now if all this sounds like the Perchten, the wild spirits of the mountains that come down into alpine villages in winter, clanging with cowbells and making their Perchtenlauf through the streets while threatening and punishing passers-by, it is because the Krampus is very akin to them. Both go back in spirit to pre-Christian times, and a more animistic way of thinking. The Perchten, however, come during the “Raw Nights,” between December 25th and January 6th.

In some regions the Krampus is called a “devil,” but of course devil figures are traditionally given animal (and pre-Christian) characteristics such as horns and hooves, and the Christians decided early on to relegate the gods of the non-Christians to demon/devil status.

In other places, the figure who comes is Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Ruprecht), a bearded man dressed in brown robe and hood and carrying a staff or long bundle of twigs, and sometimes belled like Krampus and the Perchten. His job is, like theirs, to scare and punish disobedient children, though like the modern Zwarte Piet, he has softened a bit.

In any case, in contemporary times Zwarte Piet and elsewhere the Krampus may show up as early as middle to late November.

It is interesting that the old animistic “scary” figures like the Krampus are making a comeback, and have begun appearing in places where they were not previously known, like the United States. Yesterday I was in the big local bookshop, which had already put out its holiday cards. Among them was a bright and obvious box of Krampus cards.


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Bashō wrote two very similar winter hokku, using a different technique in each.

You will recall that in winter, hokku using opposites are often effective (as they are in summer) by presenting us with contrasting elements. Bashō does that in the first verse, which I will give in a very literal form:

Usually hateful,snowcrow
Even a crow…
The snowy morning.

That is rather cryptic to a Western reader, because we are unaccustomed to having to fill in the blanks. Many hokku, however, rely on implying something without stating it directly, and the reader is expected to make that intuitive leap. In some verses it it easy, but in others no one is quite sure what the writer intended, so demanding excessive intuitiveness of the reader can ruin a verse. And in any case, Westerners generally prefer “plain talk” and things stated clearly and simply. It is a cultural difference.

That is why R.H. Blyth, in translating this verse, added to the original, making it:

How beautiful
The usually hateful crow,
This morn of snow!

But as you see, the original does not say “how beautiful.” I think I would go with a more understated rendering:

Usually hateful,
Even the crow is appealing –
The snowy morning.

The setting is the snowy morning. The subject is, of course, the usually hateful crow, and the action is “appealing.” We are using “action” very loosely here. You will recall that in the standard setting/subject/action hokku, the action is something moving or changing. Here the change is that the crow has gone from being hateful to being appealing.

It is probably obvious to you that the reason this hokku is somewhat successful is that it contrasts the blackness of the crow with the whiteness of the snow, so we have a Yin (black) Yang (white) contrast here.

It is only a small step from that verse to one that does not use such a striking contrast, but is nonetheless based on the same notion — that a new snowfall makes ordinary things look different than usual:

We even
Look at horses –
The snowy morning.

Horses, in Bashō’s day, were very ordinary things, used for travel and for carrying loads. He is saying that in the context of snow, even the everyday horses take on an unexpected interest for us.

Bashō could have combined notions from the two verses like this, avoiding the “usually hateful” in the first example:

Even the crow
Becomes appealing;
The snowy morning.

As an English verse, I like that better than either of the originals. It not only eliminates the rather awkward and obvious “usually hateful,” but it also takes advantage of the “harmony of contrasts” that often makes for strong winter hokku.

If we want to avoid the repetition of the -ing sound that ends the second and third lines, we could make a more substantial change:

A snowy dawn;
Even the crow
Has become appealing.

In a verse as brief as hokku, every change gives a slightly different effect.

Did you notice that both of Bashō’s verses happen at morning? There is a reason for that. He wants to give the impression of a fresh snowfall, a new time when we see old things in a new way. And seeing ordinary things in a new way is, you will recall, one of the keys to writing effective hokku.

Here are the originals in transliteration and literal translation. I am putting this at the end so it can be easily skipped by those not interested in the linguistic details. It is important to remember that one need know nothing at all about Japanese to write hokku in English, but one must know the principles, techniques, and aesthetics of writing hokku in English:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usualy hateful crow even snow ‘s morning kana

Uma wo sae nagamuru yuki no ashita kana
Horse[s] wo even look snow ‘s morning kana

Keep in mind that Japanese does not specify number; so one can translate “crow” or “crows,” “horse” or “horses.” In most verses the singular is to be preferred, but now and then the plural. The principle in hokku is that one thing is generally felt to be more significant than many things, because it focuses the attention. One thing is often used when looking at an event closely, and more than one when looking from farther away.


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It is important to know that not all old hokku provide good models for writing, nor were they all — even those we find in books today — good hokku.

Now and then we find among these old verses a tendency to over-dramatization and over-emotionalizing. It exists not only among “ordinary” writers like Jōsō, but is also found in Bashō, who in spite of his reputation wrote far more forgettable than memorable hokku.

Here is an example from Jōsō:

Colder than snow –
The winter moon
On white hair.

Or we could make it less literal:

Colder than snow –
The winter moonlight
On white hair.

What is wrong with it? From my perspective, it is exaggerated and striving for effect. Jōsō wants to make a statement about time and old age, but in hokku it is best to be more objective, to present an event that arouses the mind of the reader but does not try to manipulate it.

Here is an example of similar hyperbole from Bashō. One has the feeling his sentiments were sincere, but still there is an overwhelming sense of artificiality:

If taken in hand,
Hot tears would melt it –
Autumn frost.

One has to know the context (a bad sign in hokku) in order to understand the verse. Bashō was looking at white hairs of his deceased mother, shown to him by his brother. So the “autumn frost” in the verse really signifies his dead mother’s white hair.

It is possible in hokku to write “occasion” verses that refer simultaneously to two different things (like white hair and frost in this verse), but when doing it, one must be careful that such a verse works well on both levels. This verse fails, because on the most important level (the objective), it is too much influenced by the other, subjective level. We know that subjectively, the white hairs would not melt in Bashō’s hand, that he is exaggerating; and there seems no point to saying the obvious on the objective level — that hot tears will melt autumn frost.

In hokku one has to be very careful not to strive too much for an effect, and one must also be careful to focus on things rather than emotions. One lets things speak for themselves in arousing the mind of the reader, which will create the appropriate emotion without the need for the writer be too blatant in attempting to evoke it.

Etsujin shows us how to write a hokku that does what both Jōsō and Bashō failed to do in the above verses:

The ending year;
I hid my grey hair
From my father.

Etsujin has just objectively presented an event, but nonetheless one can feel everything that is behind it, with no sense of overstatement, no sense of artificiality. What he gives us here is something that young people may not yet understand, but it is something that older people naturally feel — that there is something unexpectedly troubling in aged parents suddenly seeing their children aging as well. I did not really understand this verse until, one day after a long absence, I visited my mother, and suddenly had the inexplicable feeling that it was somehow unkind to let her see, in her old age, the signs of age in myself — the increasingly grey hairs on my head. It quite surprised me, and Etsujin’s verse became clear. Sometimes one must grow into a hokku to understand it.

To summarize, it is generally best to be objective and subtle in hokku, particularly when conveying emotion. Being too flagrant is in bad taste because it gives an unpleasant effect somewhat equivalent to the English term “maudlin.”

It is worth recalling the connection between old age (white hair) and winter. You will remember that the season of winter corresponds to very old age and death, because it is the “death” of Nature in the cycle of the year, the ending of one cycle prior to the beginning of another.

For those wanting originals, here they are:

Yuki yori mo samushi shiraga ni fuyu no tsuki
Snow more mo cold white-hair on winter’s moon

Te mo toreba kien namida zo atsuki aki no shimo

Hand if take, vanish tears zo hot autumn ‘s frost

Yuku toshi ya oya ni shiraga wo kakushikeri

Departing year ya father at white-hair wo hid


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I usually avoid presenting hokku here that are specifically Japanese in location, in favor of more general subject matter. But today I want to talk about a such a verse because it is helpful in learning how to bring interest into one’s hokku.

If I were to present a hokku about Oneonta Gorge or the Columbia palisades, it might mean something to people in my area, but it would mean little to people in other parts of the country or of the world, because they would not know the sites and so no clear corresponding image would arise in their minds. That is why I generally counsel that it is often best to avoid naming specific places in hokku; it is then easier for people in other regions to relate to a verse.

Jōsō wrote a hokku about the once-famous long bridge at Seta in Japan, or rather I should say that he wrote a hokku set at that bridge. His hokku is really about more, and that is what makes it interesting.

Suppose we just give the reader a subject, like this:

Seta Bridge;

If the reader is familiar with that bridge (and most educated Japanese would have been), it would evoke an image in the mind, but it would do little more. So how does one make such a subject interesting?

Two ways to do this are:

1. See the subject in a “new” way, a way different from what is ordinary.
2. Add action.

Beginning with the second, what exactly is action in hokku? It is how we bring something to life and make it more interesting. Action is something moving or changing — even if it is changing slowly. Of course the more rapid the action, the more striking it tends to be.

In writing today’s hokku, Jōsō used three basic elements: Seta Bridge, rain, and people.

If we use only the first, we get just a rather static image of the bridge in the mind, as we have already seen.

If we use the first and second, that adds something, but not a lot:

Seta Bridge;
Many people
are on it.

It is common for beginners to write hokku like that, not realizing that two such elements are not enough in themselves to create interest in the mind of the reader. So how did Jōsō do it? To the bridge and the people he added movement, in fact very strong movement, by adding rain and not just people, but scurrying people. Here is his verse:


So many people
Running across in the rain –
Seta Bridge.

We have the bridge, we have the people, we have the rain, and we have the action of running. That makes it interesting because it now has life and movement.

The bridge at Seta was an unusually long wooden bridge across water. This was in the pre-auto days when traffic across it would have been mostly by foot. So this is the scene:

Being on the bridge, those crossing are openly exposed to the elements, and when a cold winter shower begins to pour down upon them, they dash and scurry all the way across the long bridge, hurrying to the get to the end and to some possible shelter.

Now let’s see what the verse would have been without the strong action added by the rain and the running:

So many people
Crossing over
Seta Bridge.

That kind of verse, again, is dull. It has some action in the crossing people, but not enough to make it worthwhile. It is very ordinary, and does not enable us to see crossing the bridge in a new way. And it is also important to note that even though we know it is set in (early) winter, there is not a connection to the season in the verse that makes us really feel it. That connection is added by the rain, which at that time of year would have been cold and strong and unpleasant, thus the hurrying to get out of it in Jōsō’s original.

Remember that if a hokku merely shows us a common, everyday scene, it is likely to be uninteresting. How do we change that?

We have seen that one can add interest by using strong action, but also very important is the second way of adding interest mentioned earlier, and it is a basic principle: to make a subject interesting, we should show it in a new way, show it differently than we usually see and experience it. And that is what Jōsō has done with the subject of the long bridge at Seta.

That is, in fact, what the block print artist Hiroshige did with his visual rendering of that same bridge. Instead of depicting it on a pleasant spring or summer day, he rendered it in rain. His version, however, is a bit more placid than Jōsō’s verse, and though pleasant, it does not have quite the strong effect of the hokku, as you can see. That is partly because we do not find in it such an emphasis on scurrying crowds as we find in the hokku.


For those interested in the Japanese version, it is:

Ikutari ka shigure kakenuku seta no hashi

how-many people ? cold-rain running across Seta ‘s bridge

Shigure is the cold rain that falls in late autumn-winter; kakenuku means to run all the way across or to something.


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There is a hokku attributed to Bashō that is brief in Japanese but requires considerably more words in English to make sense. You can see why if I translate it literally:

Hyakunen no keshiki wo niwa no ochiba kana
Hundred-years ‘s scene wo garden ‘s fallen-leaves kana

Given that wo is a grammatical particle and kana is just a filler word indicating at best a pause for reflection, the actual content of the verse comes down to this:

hundred-year’s scene garden’s fallen leaves

How do we translate such a verse into English? Perhaps

A scene
A hundred years old:
The garden in fallen leaves.

Or one could do it like this, translating the meaning rather than being very literal:

It looks to be
A hundred years old –
The garden of fallen leaves.

Or perhaps, varying that slightly,

It looks as though
A hundred years old –
The garden of fallen leaves.

Blyth, as usual, does a superb job of conveying the meaning, though his translation adds a word (“temple”) not in the original:

A hundred years old it looks,
This temple garden,
With its fallen leaves.

The significance of the verse conveys the feeling of early winter after the leaves have nearly all fallen. You will recall, if you read regularly here, that aesthetically and in terms of Yin and Yang, winter corresponds to very old age and death. We feel in it a sense of time and age, and that is what Bashō is saying — that the garden with its near-bare branches and ground covered with dry leaves gives the feeling of something very old, of something in which a sense of life and energy seem long to have departed.

It is a feeling akin to that in the poem L’infinito (The Infinite) of Giacomo Leopardi, when he says,

…e mi sovvien l’eterno,
e le morte stagioni…

“And I recall the eternal, and the dead seasons…”


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A foggy morning;
From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

This is the time of year when I am often pleasantly surprised, when out walking in the morning, by the cries of migrating flocks of geese and ducks passing high overhead. It is also a time of frequent fog.

I often wonder how many out there are learning or practicing hokku. I know that still, comparatively speaking, few people even know what it is.

As I often repeat, hokku are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Unlike modern haiku, the hokku accepts certain boundaries. It does not include violence or sex or romance or other such things that disturb the mind, because hokku is a “contemplative” kind of verse. It also avoids emphasis on the writer, and tends to use the words “I” “me” and “my” seldom. When talking about one’s self, it is treated in the same objective way one would talk about a tree, a stone, or a fox.

Hokku at times has a subtle humor, but never the “milk spurting out the nose” kind of intentionally funny poetry such as limericks.

Underlying all of the practice of hokku, all its verses, is a sense of transience, of the passage of time and the impermanence of all things. Impermanence is the character of everything in the universe, from the life of a mayfly to that of stars. Being set in the seasons, hokku has an inherent sense of time and its movements, and that is why we pay attention to the Hokku Calendar, which approximates very closely the old agricultural calendar of the British Isles and elsewhere.

Hokku also keeps us aware, in this impermanence, of the interplay of the two cosmic forces, Yin and Yang, and how they manifest in the changing seasons.

Now we have entered the last phase in the declining of Yang energies from their height in summer. We are moving into the increasing Yin of winter.

All hokku have a longer part and a shorter part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark. The longer part may come first or second, whatever works best.

A hokku in English begins each line with a capital letter, and ends with another appropriate punctuation mark.

In today’s hokku the short part comes at the beginning:

A foggy morning;

Then follows the longer part:

From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

Notice that even though the two parts of the hokku are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark, there may be more than one punctuation mark in the body of the verse. Only one of them, however, functions as the separating mark or “cut” between the longer and shorter parts of the verse.

Hokku is not difficult to write. It does, however, require one to follow certain aesthetic guidelines, such as those already mentioned. Once one gets the spirit of these, then hokku becomes quite easy.

It is a very important verse form for these times in which there are so many threats to Nature and to world climate, and in which people are increasingly alienated from Nature and from the cycle of the seasons. It takes us away from materialism and back to the basic and important things in life.


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