Here is the first pattern for learning hokku.  It is by Gyōdai:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

And here is how one uses a pattern for learning:
All parts of it can be changed, as long as one keeps the same basic form.

We can see that this is a standard hokku, meaning that it has a setting (the autumn hills) a subject (smoke) and an action (rises here and there).  These three elements need not be divided precisely line by line.  For example in this verse, the subject is found at the beginning of the third line, while the action is divided between the third line, where the verb is found, and the second line.

Do not worry about the order in which subject and action come, but rather just be sure there is a subject and an action.  We will keep the setting as the first line for this practice.

In the model verse, the setting is

The autumn hills;

That is an adjective followed by a noun.

We can change both the adjective and the noun.  We could make it:

The blue hills;
The distant hills;
The high mountain;
The deep forest;
The clear water;
The windy gorge;

And so on to infinity.

We can also change “the” at the beginning to “a” or “an.”

Because we are beginning autumn, whatever setting we choose as our adjective-verb  should relate to autumn.  And we can make our start as easy as we wish at first, and then we can vary more and more elements as we gain experience.

As an example, we could use the same setting and only vary the subject and action:

The autumn hills
Here and there
Trees redden.

In the beginning do not worry about making your practice hokku great hokku; improved content will come gradually.  Instead, focus on making the hokku fit the season and on following the pattern as you replace or vary elements within it.

We could also keep the same subject and action, and practice different first-line settings;

An old village;
Here and there
Smoke rises.


The autumn fields;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Once we begin getting the feel of it, we can vary both setting and subject and action:

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Scarecrows lean.

Again, remember that we are not looking to rival great hokku in our beginning practice.  We are just learning, first, to use a model; second, to be in keeping with the season; and third, to practice our freedom in varying the elements of the model.

Now what is the point in all this?

Beginning hokku is like wearing a toolbelt with lots of empty pouches, but no tools.  Each model we practice puts a tool in a pouch of our belt.  And then when one actually has an experience in Nature, one can use this tool — this pattern — as a way to organize that experience.  The more patterns we learn, the more options we have for organizing.  And you will find that as you practice these basic patterns, they will readily come to mind when you do have an experience and want to write it down.

In working on these patterns, keep in mind that the setting is usually the wider context in which something happens.  It can be a place, the weather, the season — usually the BIG part of the hokku into which the subject and the action fit, like in the model.  The smoke rising here and there happens in the BIG setting of the autumn hills.

The subject — aside from the setting — is what the verse is “about,” in this case “smoke.”  And the action is something involving the subject that is moving or changing.  In this case the smoke “rises here and there.”

Now you have the first tool that fits in your hokku workbelt.  You only have to practice using it for it to become very practical and helpful.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this, or need help with some problem in your practice, feel free to ask me by posting a comment to the site.

If you do not mind everyone seeing your question or comment, it will appear on the site after I see it, and I will answer it publicly.  If you prefer to be helped privately, just put the word “PRIVATE” at the top of your comment, and instead of it appearing on my site, I will be the only one to see it, and I will respond to you directly by the email address that appears to me when you post a question or comment.

And feel free, if you wish, to show me your progress and ask advice as you need it.

It is very important that if you really want to learn hokku, you practice these patterns carefully, making your changes and replacement of elements as simple and gradual as you like.  Go at your own pace, without being lax.  Do not make things too hard for yourself at first.  But again, as you get more practice in replacing elements in the pattern, and begin to get the sense of how it works, you can replace more elements and make your practice variations more extensive.

Do not do it just once or twice; keep making variations of all kinds on a pattern until doing so comes quite easily.  That will make it much easier, eventually, to write hokku from your own direct experiences.

Again, this is a very old, very traditional way of teaching.  It has been used for centuries because it works.  How well it works depends on how hard the student works, and how well the student can absorb and express the aesthetics and spirit of hokku.  I shall be talking more about these as we progress.

This is the first step on the path of hokku.  Taking it is up to you.



In hokku it is essential to write in harmony with the season.  The most important quality of autumn is transience — the fact that everything changes, all is impermanent, nothing stays.  Autumn is transience.

In autumn hokku, we experience and express this transience through the subjects we choose.  We favor things withering and changing, things aging and weakening, things that do not stay.

We find this expressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Márgaret, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts car for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child the name:
Sórrows spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

These are the same sentiments at heart as those expressed in the Hōjōki of Kamo no Chōmei, who lived in the second half of the 12 century and first few years of the 13th, and who lived his latter days as a Buddhist recluse in a tiny hut:

Though the flow of the river never ceases, the water passing moment to moment is never the same.  Where it eddies, bubbles rise to the surface, bursting and vanishing as others replace them, none lasting.  Thus are people and their dwellings in this world — always changing.

(My rendition)

Transience is characteristic of the universe; the universe is transience.  And yet in some things it is more apparent than in others; we see it more readily in the leaves of autumn than in the shapes of the hills.

Another significant quality of autumn is loneliness, but the loneliness of hokku is not the desire for human company.  It is more akin to the inner solitude that is the consequence of knowing that nothing stays, neither parents, nor friends, nor family.  Ultimately everything goes.  And the “loneliness” of hokku, what we call here the solitude of hokku — is the feeling we have in knowing, as we sit among the changing and falling leaves, that everything is temporary, from a single morning glory flower that lasts but a day to a star that perishes after aeons of time.

In the autumn all the abundance and vigor of summer is leaving, vanishing.  And suddenly we see the real nature of existence — that all is impermanent.  That leads us to the third important quality of autumn — poverty.  By poverty we do not mean simply lack of money or resources.  Instead we mean spiritual poverty, the knowledge that the gathering and amassing of wealth and possessions is meaningless, because none of it can be kept; one way or another, sooner or later, it will all leave us.  Knowing this puts the sigificance of possessions into perspective.  We realize what we need for living and what we do not need, what is important and what is not.  And in autumn we see the poverty of Nature, as the leaves fall from the trees, revealing their hidden forms, and plants wither and gradually return to the root for the long sleep of winter.

If our hokku reflect these things — transience, solitude, and poverty — they will be in harmony with the season.

The aesthetics of autumn hokku, then, are an appreciation of that which is aging — of cedar wood turned whitish-grey, of rocks worn by rain and wind, of  things with the weathered surface that time gives.

Have you ever noticed a newly-created landscaping job with large rocks brought in and set in the ground to give the garden a sense of being anchored to the earth?  All too often the knowledge of the landscaper in such things is only superficial.  He will bring in big boulders, but we see on them the fresh marks of being broken, and the light-colored grooves worn by the chains used to lift and move them.  That defeats the purpose, because the rocks look very new, and it will take much time before rain and wind, frost and heat, weather them to a mellow look of age.

In writing autumn hokku, we should avoid that appearance of newness because it is contrary to the feeling of the season.  And we should also avoid giving that sense of artificiality to our verse.

Of course the best way to understand what is in harmony with autumn is to go out into Nature often during the season, to walk, to sit, to watch and observe its characteristics — and then to write in keeping with those characteristics.

That keeps us in harmony with Nature in our writing, in harmony with the seasons, and the seasons are the life of hokku, which changes with them as does Nature.



Only a single day remains before August ends and September begins.  The Summer months — June, July and August — give way to the Autumn months — September, October and November.

Through hokku we are taken away from the excessive obsession with the self and with the thinking mind that characterizes modern society, and returned to our rightful place within Nature, as a part of it, and to the primal experience of the senses rather than our secondary “thinking,” the intellection that we avoid in hokku.

Hokku is thus a way of both recognizing our vital connection to Nature, and of taking us out of busy intellection and into tranquil perception.

There are many old “natural” names for September, names that express what is happening in Nature.  For example, among the Ojibwe people, September is:

Waatebagaa-giizis — the Month of Leaves Changing Color;

Maandamini-giizis — the Month of Corn;

Moozo-giizis — Moose Month.

The word “giizis,” found in each of these, means “moon,” just as in English our “month” is derived from an old word for moon.

Seen in the perspective of yin and yang, the passive and active elements, September is growing yin — an aging and quietening of the vital forces after the maturity of late summer, their gradual decline into the extreme yin of winter.  In the day it corresponds to late afternoon and evening; in human life it corresponds to the time beginning in late middle age and before the elderly years — the time of greying hair, weakening body, and lessening energy.

I mention these things not for any exotic reason, but because an important part of hokku is their layers of associations, the things they evoke in us.  Keeping this in mind helps us to know what is in harmony with the season, something which eventually becomes second nature as one absorbs the aesthetic principles underlying hokku.

Do not think that his connection of the Fall with time of day and stage of human life is anything “Eastern.”  Carl Jung, who was Swiss, wrote that this is not simply sentimental jargon, but rather that through it we “give expression to psychological truths, and even more to physiological facts”:

“Our life is like the course of the sun.  In the morning it gains continually in strength until it reaches the zenith-heat of high noon.  Then comes the enantiodromia: the steady forward movement no longer denotes an increase but a decrease, in strength.  Thus our task in handling a young person is different from the task of handling an older person.” (From The Stages of Life, 1930)

And in the same way, our task in writing Autumn hokku is far different from that of writing Spring hokku.

Now that we are entering Autumn, I want to take a few moments to talk about this site.  It is not like any other.  To the best of my knowledge, it is still the only Internet site actively teaching hokku, a continuation of the old verse form practiced from the 17th century to its unfortunate decline near the beginning of the 20th century.  However hokku as taught here is adapted to the English language, while still retaining the important essentials of the old hokku.

That means this is a teaching and learning site, and though sometimes I may seem to talk about things a long way removed from hokku, nonetheless there is some relationship.  I do this because hokku is not just a little verse in three short lines that anyone can write with no preparation.

Hokku is a whole way of looking at the world and at one’s place as a part of it, and a way of living.  It is not, like other kinds of brief verse, subject to radical change at the whims of those writing it.  It has very specific principles and standards, and learning those takes time.  That is why the aesthetics of hokku are so important, and must be understood before one can make any genuine progress.

Hokku as I teach it is a contemplative, spiritual form of verse.  It is also a very selfless form  that helps to take the focus off the ego.  And learning it requires both patience and humility.

Many people who read my site are involved in other forms of brief verse, and they come here to get ideas to apply to their own verse forms.  There is nothing wrong with that, if it helps to make their verses closer to Nature and more hokku-like.  But it is important NOT to confuse hokku with any other kind of brief verse, which is why I use its distinctive and historically-correct name, and no other.

It is also vitally important to know that to obtain the full virtues of hokku, and not just some watered-down or distorted simulacrum, the only way is both to correctly learn hokku and to practice it over a long period of time.  Otherwise one knows really nothing about it.  It must be understood to be practiced correctly, and it must be practiced correctly to be understood.  I offer the instruction here — completely without charge — enabling one to do both. So though many who practice other forms of verse come here to read and borrow and to adapt ideas that I present on this site to those other verse forms, those who sincerely want to correctly  learn hokku from me should be very careful not to mix what they learn here with ideas or practices from any other kind of brief verse.  Otherwise the result will not be hokku.

One can see from all this that hokku is the most challenging of all brief verse forms, demanding more of the writer and of the reader.  Yet that does not mean there is anything complicated about it.  Hokku is very simple and straightforward.  It just means that it is often very difficult for people — particularly in our hectic and materialistic times — to learn to be simple.

All that is needed to learn hokku is a sincere effort to absorb its techniques, principles, and aesthetics, as well as patience and the willingness to put it into practice.  That makes it as easy and gradual as getting from one place to another by putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly.

All of this is just a preface to what we shall be doing here from the first days of of September onward.  We shall be learning hokku from the very beginning, and in a very traditional way.

Though hokku originated in Japan centuries ago, to learn hokku you need know nothing at all about Japanese history or culture or language.  Hokku is not some kind of cultural outpost of Japan, planting its flags in the various countries of the world.  Instead hokku — if it is to be at all valid — must reflect the language and the place where it is written. Thus hokku written in English is no longer a Japanese or “Asian” form of verse.  It becomes instead thoroughly American hokku, British hokku, Irish hokku, New Zealand hokku, Australian hokku, Liberian hokku,  and so on.

I live in the Northwestern United States.  But what I teach can easily be applied to any part of the English-speaking world, or indeed to any part of the world and any language, with but slight modification.  Hokku should not be an imported hothouse plant, carefully kept alive in an alien environment.  Instead it should be a native plant, growing out of native soil.  So those who want to write hokku in Spanish, or Portuguese, or French or German or Welsh or Russian or any other language will find all that they need on this site, requiring only insignificant modifications to fit the differences of language.

In teaching hokku, I use the best examples from old, pre-20th century hokku, but translated into modern English-language hokku form.  Sometimes I will modify these examples to fit a different cultural environment, but I will tell you when that happens.  Sometimes I will use verses of my own, but predominantly what I teach is derived from old hokku.

I teach using old examples in order to maintain a continuity with the old hokku tradition and to transmit high standards.  Though what we write in English is not precisely the old hokku in language and syntax and writing system, it preserves the important essentials of the old hokku — all that is necessary to make it hokku and not modern haiku or any other kind of brief verse form.  Obviously, that does not mean hokku as we practice it in English is identical to old Japanese hokku.  The cultural baggage is eliminated, but the essence — that which gives it the hokku spirit — is kept as essential.

Again, to the best of my knowledge, I am the only person teaching this way — working direct from the best examples of the old hokku tradition used as models.  It thus gives students a unique opportunity to continue a tradition whose aesthetic roots go back for many centuries — a tradition that was nearly obliterated and forgotten through misunderstandings that became common in the West in the mid-20th century.

So inevitably, there are certain practices in the old hokku tradition that I do not continue.  I do not, for example, encourage the heavy use of literary allusion.  Nor do I encourage students to write entirely from the imagination.  Though both of these things existed in the old hokku, they are practices that take us farther from direct experience of Nature, and what we want in hokku as I teach it is to be as close to Nature as possible.

That is why I often liken the writer to a mirror reflecting Nature.  The thinking and busyness and focus on the self of modern life is like dust.  When that dust is wiped away, the mirror can reflect Nature just as a pond reflects the full moon.

I would remind readers that they are free to ask hokku-related questions — questions about the techniques and the principles and aesthetics of hokku — and I am always willing to help with problems that arise in writing.



The previous posting dealt with the correct translation of Bashō’s spring “Old Pond” hokku into English.  But what is significant for us is understanding the verse as an example of hokku.

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

Unlike most hokku, in English (not in Japanese) this one has a double pause, indicated by the punctuation at the ends of lines one and two.  This is usually not done, but it can be done when appropriate, as here.

You will recall that the sense of the verse — following the Japanese more literally — is:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

That, of course, needs only one pause.  But for the effect we want in English, it requires two:

First, the firm, strong pause at the end of line one, which enables the reader to see and experience the old pond without hurry, before moving on to the next line.

Second, the dash at the end of line two, which gives us a very quiet and smooth connective transition (note how a dash is more connective than a semicolon in feeling):

A frog jumps in —

And we finish with the final line and a period:

The sound of water.

It is important to note that if we did not do this, the verse might be open to the same kind of peculiar misinterpretation that I corrected for a reader in yesterday’s posting, the notion that the frog is jumping into “the sound of water.”  So it is not:

A frog jumps in the sound of water

but rather

A frog jumps in — the sound of water.

Just that brief connective pause makes all the difference.  Punctuation is so endlessly useful in hokku!

You will recall that we introduced a second and structurally-similar verse, Ryūshi’s “Stillness” hokku, which in Japan is a winter verse, but more appropriate to late autumn in my region:

The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

It is not hard to see that this is very much the form of the “Old Pond” in a more literal translation:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

The structure in English, in fact, is virtually identical.

The lesson to be learned from this is that by using and varying appropriate patterns, hokku never becomes old-fashioned or out-of-date.  It can always be the vessel that holds a new experience, even if it is presented in a very old pattern.

And notice too the effect of both verses.  Each begins with something still and lasting:

The old pond;

And then in that “stable” setting something brief and more obviously transient happens:

The sound of a frog jumping into the water.
The sound of a bird walking on fallen leaves.

It is, as everyone can see and is shown by the fame of the “Old Pond” verse, a very effective approach.  Essentially what we see is:

Return to stillness.

That pattern has a very deep and unspoken — even un-speak-able — meaning.



Someone asked me today about the correct translation of Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku, a spring verse.  What prompted the reader’s question was seeing a version in a recent book in which the last two lines were rendered as,

“…a frog jumps into the sound of water.

The question was, is this what Bashō intended — a frog jumping INTO THE SOUND OF WATER, and not as we find it in more traditional translations?

The answer is no.  This bizarre new version is just a personal rendering or re-writing, not an accurate translation of the original.

Here is a closer look at the original and its meaning:

Furu ike ya =  Old pond ya

Kawazu tobikumu =  Frog jumps-in

Mizu no oto =  Water  ‘s sound

The faulty translation “…jumps into the sound of water” seems misled by the division in English of the Japanese into three lines, separating “the sound of water” from the rest.  But in Japanese, it is to be understood like this, as the two parts of the hokku:

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

Old pond;
Frog-jumps-in-water ‘s sound

That is the old “hokku” Japanese way of saying simply,

The sound of a frog jumping into the water.

In other words, the Japanese “kawazu tobikomu mizu” (frog-jumping-in/into-water) is to be taken as a syntactical whole — and as such, it functions as an adjective qualifying the sound.

So what did Bashō hear?

He heard a “frog-jumping-into-water” sound, or in Japanese, a

Kawazu tobikumu mizu no oto.

The particle no in Japanese means “of or belonging to.”  So what is intended is not “…a frog jumps into the sound of water,” but rather “the sound of a frog jumping into the water.”

There is a similar verse by Ryūshi, a winter hokku in Japan though more appropriate to late autumn in my part of the world:

Shizukasa ya   ochiba wo ariku    tori no oto.
Stillness ya fallen-leaves wo walking bird ‘s sound

Again, we are to understand it as the two parts of hokku, like this:

Shizukasa ya
Ochiba wo ariku tori no oto

Stillness —
Fallen-leaves-on-walking-bird ‘s sound

Again what is heard is a “fallen-leaves on walking bird ‘s sound

or in English form,

The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

Getting back to the “Old Pond,” if we wanted to translate the hokku to more literally reflect the meaning of the Japanese original, we would write:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

But while quite accurate, it is not as euphonic, nor does it have the sensory effect of

The old pond;
A frog  jumps in —
The sound of water.

We should keep in mind Blyth’s admonition that we are not to understand this as cause and effect; it is not

Cause:  a frog jumps in
Effect:  the sound of water

Instead we are to understand it, as we have seen, as “the sound of a frog jumping into the water,”  thus a unity, not an “after this, therefore because of this.”

As an added historical note, Toshiharu Oseko mentions that “This was the first time a jumping frog without any voice appeared in the history of Japanese poetry.”

Though the croaking of frogs was found in older verse, it is their appearance without their cries that interested Bashō here, and typifies his mixture of high and low elements in his verse — a new departure.

For the sake of completeness, I should add that given the nature of hokku Japanese, with its lack of singular-plural distinction and the absence of articles, we could translate the verse also as:

The old ponds;
The frogs jump in —
The sound of water.

We could make “pond” plural or singular, and “frogs” singular or plural.  But of course that would violate the aesthetics of hokku, in which one thing has more significance, generally, than many things.



Modern people tend to view the world as a collection of separate and unrelated things, without seeing the whole.  But life is not that way.  In reality, everything is connected to everything else.

No event happens in isolation, as an abstraction.  All events have their necessary contexts.  That is why in hokku, “rain” by itself means little.  It is only when we know whether it is spring rain, or summer rain, or autumn rain, or winter rain that we fully feel it.

Everything in hokku is associated with a season.  In old hokku this was indicated by special “season words” (ki-go).  But this system gradually became much too complicated and artificial.  For a student to become familiar with these season words and how to apply them properly took years.  Whole dictionaries of season words and their appropriate times (saijiki) were compiled.

When hokku moved out of Japan, the situation became even more complex.  Every area of the world has its own climate, its own distinctive plants and animals and trees and local customs.  It is simply impractical to try to categorize all of these things according to season.

Nonetheless, season is an integral and very important part of hokku.  We cannot simply drop it, because if we do so, we lose the context of a verse.  So in modern hokku we instead drop the use of season words, but keep seasonal classification by writing on each verse the season in which it was written.  This is a remarkably simple and practical solution, and quite in keeping with the spirit of the old hokku, which was to simplify, not to make needlessly complex.

There is a hokku by Hokushi, one of the students of Bashō:

Dust lies
On the leaves of the grasses;
Lingering heat.

This has little meaning unless we know it is an autumn verse.

Summer has drawn to an end, and autumn has come.  We see the dry, lifeless dust that coats the leaves of the grasses, and in it we feel the lingering heat that still remains — for the moment — from the summer that is past.  Soon the dust and stagnant heat will be washed away by the cooling rains of autumn.

This works well as a transitional verse for the period we are now in — the change from summer to autumn.  But notice that without this seasonal context, the hokku would lose most of its significance.

Every hokku I present here is really a little lesson in how to write.   So if you play close attention and apply what is presented here to your own writing, you will gradually learn hokku.  But be careful not to mix it with any other kind of verse, long or short, or you will go astray and end up writing something else.

Let’s look at the example:

Dust lies
On the leaves of the grasses;
Lingering heat.

This is called a “standard” hokku.  It consists of a setting, a subject, and an action.  These need not be in that order.  The setting — the wider context in which something happens, is “Lingering heat.”  The subject is “dust.”  The action — something moving or changing — is “lies on the leaves of the grasses.”  

You may wonder why the dust on the leaves of the grasses qualifies as something moving or changing here; after all, it is just lying there, not doing anything.  The reason is that we know formerly there was no dust on the leaves.  And when the autumn rains come, it will be gone.  So an “action” in a hokku can be something with a long-term change, not just something you see moving or changing before your eyes.

Also, how we name the parts of a hokku can change depending on how that part is used in a hokku.  In this one the dust on the leaves is an “action.”  But of course in other circumstances, dust on the leaves of grasses could be a subject.  Never forget that the “formula” for a standard hokku is not an absolute law, but rather just a tool to help you acquire the hokku way of thinking — to get you started — and eventually you will do it naturally and without thinking.

Countless hokku can be written following this simple but effective pattern.  Keep in mind that the setting need not be the first of the three elements.  It may come at the end, as it does in this example.  Pay close attention to punctuation:

Dust lies
On the leaves of the grasses;
Lingering heat.

Notice that in this verse, as in all hokku, there is a longer and a shorter part.  These two parts are separated (and joined) by appropriate punctuation.  Here a semicolon is used.  The semicolon provides a strong a definite pause in hokku before moving on to the second part.  It enables the reader to experience what precedes it fully before moving on.

All English language hokku end with appropriate punctuation, whether the very common period, or ellipses indicating something left unfinished (….) or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!), which is used sparingly because it indicates something surprising or unexpected or very emphatic.

And do not forget to capitalize the first letter of each line.  That is not only a nod to the English poetic tradition, but from experience I have found that it avoids any confusion.  And it also makes for a unified format that contributes to the sense of community in hokku.  We use a common visual language, a common form, and so there is no occasion for petty quibbling and bickering.  The form works remarkably well, and as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”



By chance I flipped open a book to the Japanese original of a hokku by Onitsura, one of the two “patriarchs” of our kind of hokku.  Though it is out of season, it gives me a good opportunity to show you exactly what old hokku were like, and how they are translated into English-language hokku form.  An old hokku would have been printed vertically, like this:

鶯      Uguisu   nightingale / bush warbler  (Chinese character)

や     ya           (cutting word — Japanese phonetic hiragana symbol)

梅    ume         plum  (Chinese character)

に   ni             on, at  (Japanese hiragana)

と    to-           (hiragana)

ま    ma-         (hiragana)

る    ru –         tomaru = perch, stop (hiragana)

は    wa (ha) subject marker (hiragana)

昔    mukashi  ancient, past  (Chinese character)

か    ka –  (hiragana)

ら    ra –   kara from (hiragana)

    Let’s put it in horizontal form for convenience.
    鶯 梅 に とまるは 昔 か ら
    Uguisu ya ume ni tomaru wa mukashi kara
    Nightingale ya plum on perch wa ancient from
    When a Japanese writer presented a noun followed by the cutting word ya (as here with uguisu ya), he was giving almost precisely the effect we get by writing in English
    The nightingale —
    In other words, he says, “Here is the nightingale; take a moment to experience it before we move on.”  Notice how perfectly the dash does in English what the cutting word does in Japanese.  Depending on the nature of the individual verse, we might also want to express the pause with a more definite and less connective semicolon (;).
    Having given us the setting, which here is the shorter part of the two parts of a hokku, he then goes on to the longer part.
    (It) perched on the plum
    In English the verb requires a subject, so we insert “it,” then we reverse the order because in English we say “perched on the plum” instead of “plum on perched.”  Notice that the Japanese has no “the,” because Japanese had no articles, no “the,” no “a,” no “an.”  But they are required for normal good English.  Notice also that we do not need the subject marker wa/ha, because it does not fit English grammar.  We know the perching is done by the nightingale because of the word order in the sentence.  But to convey the sense of the hokku, we should add the word “has”:
    (It) has perched on the plum
    Mukashi means “ancient,” “old,” “past.”  When we add kara it means literally “ancient from,” but in English we would say “from ancient times,” or “from of old.”  So we can end the verse with
    From ancient times.
    You can see how very clipped the structure of hokku Japanese is compared to normal English.  Nonetheless that is no obstacle in translation, because the meaning is conveyed easily in this case from one language to another.
    Notice also that the original Japanese had no upper case or lower case letters, because it did not use letters; it used a mixture of borrowed Chinese Characters (kanji) and Japanese phonetic symbols (hiragana).  Nor did hokku Japanese — or old Japanese in general — have punctuation.  In that it is similar to many ancient Western documents, which also had no punctuation, and consequently proved quite confusing.  In translating original manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, for example, scholars sometimes have to guess where one sentence ended and another began.
    Punctuation was adopted in English for precisely this reason, and for its invaluable function in enabling fine shades of pause and emphasis.  That is why we unfailingly use it in hokku, and it serves the purpose superbly — better even than the old cutting words, which were not quite as expressive on the whole.
    We now have the entire hokku:
    The nightingale —
    It has perched on the plum
    From ancient times.
    By “plum” is meant of course the tree, not an individual fruit.
    Onitsura presents us with a subject — the nightingale — and then he makes an evident statement about it.  Not a statement of opinion, but something very obvious and not requiring intellection.  There are many, many hokku that follow this pattern, and so we call this type of hokku a “statement” hokku.
    Onitsura sees a nightingale perched on a branch of flowering plum; in Japanese culture, the plum tree and the nightingale had been associated with one another in literature for a long, long time.  So Onitsura sees both the present and the past, and realizes that
    The nightingale —
    It has perched on the plum
    From ancient times.
    As Blyth said,
    We get a vista of birds and trees, in which this plum-tree is all plum-trees, this uguisu all uguisu.”
    It is very much like the lines of Walter de la Mare from his poem All That’s Past:
    Very old are the woods;
    And the buds that break
    Out of the briar’s boughs,
    When March winds wake,
    So old with their beauty are —
    Oh, no man knows
    Though what wild centuries
    Roves back the rose.
    To allay the fears of those who might think that I am going to go into such great linguistic detail every time I present an old hokku, I have no intention of doing that.  We write in English, not Japanese.  Nonetheless it is useful — at least once — to have a clear picture of just what old Japanese hokku looked like, of how it was structured, and of how it is translated into English.
    This particular example is further useful in that it shows us the inappropriateness of using a Spring verse that speaks of plum trees and nightingales at the end of summer and beginning of autumn, when we are beginning the decline of the year.  That verse was meant for the beginning of the year, and that is why we customarily read and write hokku in season, not out of season.


It often seems to those who practice other kinds of brief verse that hokku is unnecessarily laden down with lots of rules, while they can write however they like about anything they like.

Hokku does have its principles and standards, but there is a reason for them.  The “rules” of hokku are just the manifestation of the aesthetics that underlie and give rise to hokku.  It is difficult to learn the aesthetics without seeing a visual manifestation, just as one cannot see the wind unless it happens to be blowing the branches of a tree or the grasses in a field.  If one studies the motion of things blown by the wind, one learns the nature of the wind.

It is the same with hokku.  The rules are a description of the manifestation of the aesthetics of hokku, and by learning them, one begins gradually to learn also the underlying aesthetics.  That is why, in learning ink painting, a student will copy examples given by the teacher, will make strokes of the brush in accordance with those of examples.  Gradually the student will learn techniques and and aesthetics, and as he or she matures, more and more these will just come naturally.

Our approach is that one must first learn the basic principles and standards thoroughly and then as they become part of one’s being, one will naturally come to understand more and more the aesthetics behind them.  That is how one knows when the rules can be made secondary to the aesthetics that gave rise to them.

Those who write Westernized forms of verse may say, “Well, why not just omit the rules, and start out with the student free to go beyond them?”

The reason is that in order to go beyond the rules — while still maintaining the same underlying aesthetics — one must first thoroughly know the rules — and that means not just theoretical knowledge read from a book or Internet site; it means understanding how they are applied in practice, in this case when actually writing hokku.

There are many other kinds of brief verse, superficially similar to hokku, in which people write according to their personal whims and wishes, with no underlying aesthetic at all.  Except for the very rare appearance of a natural-born genius, this is a path that generally leads nowhere, and it accounts for the volumes of virtually worthless brief verse that such people have produced and continue to produce.  It is like a child trying to bake a cake without knowing the ingredients or techniques for making a cake.  The result will be something, but it will bear very little resemblance to a real cake.

There is a further benefit to the “rules” of hokku.  They require humility.  Many times in the past, new students have come to me saying they wanted to learn hokku, yet the first time something they wrote was criticized or corrected, their attitude was, “You can’t tell ME how to write!”  And actually, they were quite right.  I could not tell them how to write, because they refused to listen.  And so they never learned.  In order for the cup to be filled, it must first be emptied.  If someone comes to hokku already thinking they know what it is and how it should be written, they are wasting their time and mine.

Some people say, “Why should we have to capitalize the first letter of each line of a hokku?  Isn’t that just old-fashioned”?

One of the first lessons we learn in hokku is not to pay any attention to what is fashionable.   Instead we go for what is both practical and in keeping with the aesthetics of hokku, and capitalizing the first letter of each line is both a reflection of traditional practice in English, as well as a simple way to avoid the confusion between the first line beginning with a capital letter and another line that may on occasion begin with a capital letter because the word it helps to form is a proper noun.

Further, in our way of hokku, uniformity of format makes for a sense of community.  Those who want to quibble about such things should not attempt hokku, but should instead pick some other kind of verse in which they can do as they wish.

The standards of hokku, then, are the reflection of the aesthetics that underlie it, the same aesthetics shared with the other contemplative arts.  They are a means to understanding, not the understanding itself.  But it is only by walking on the road to a destination that one will finally reach the destination.  And it is only by learning the principles and standards of hokku that one will achieve a unity with its foundational aesthetics.



My teaching method is simple, but not at all new.  It is the same method used by Onitsura in the 17th century, and it is traditional in the teaching of hokku.  I present the student with good hokku models, which I draw from the best of the old writers, and I translate and present them in English-language hokku form.

Students who carefully study the models and use them as patterns for their own verse will quickly learn, as long as they are careful to keep in mind the inherent aesthetics of hokku.

Hokku are traditionally written and read in season, and so I generally use verses appropriate to the season in which I am teaching.  Occasionally I will use an out-of season verse to explain or illustrate a particular point, but that is only for learning purposes.

We are now at the ending of summer and the beginning of autumn, so I will be using many autumn hokku as models, showing how they are constructed and the aesthetic principles that underlie them.  Just how much a student will learn from this depends on how much he (or she) is willing to put into close attention to both the patterns and aesthetics of hokku.  And of course one cannot write hokku without regularly connecting with Nature, whether in the countryside or in a city park or a backyard garden.

I waste little time on discussion of the Japanese language in which old hokku were originally written, because we do not write in Japanese and hokku can be written quite well in any language.  The translations I use are generally my own.  And I emphasize that in writing hokku, one should forget about their Japanese background, because when writing hokku in America, our hokku should be thoroughly American; in Wales thoroughly Welsh; in Scotland thoroughly Scottish; in Switzerland thoroughly Swiss; and the rest applies to all the other countries of the world, no matter what their language or climatic region.

In the coming weeks, as already mentioned, we shall be studying the patterns and aesthetics of old Autumn hokku.  So it will be a chance for those who really want to learn hokku to do so in a systematic and gradual way.  I suggest that you read back through the previous articles as preparation for that.

Those who are long-time readers here will notice that some time ago I removed the earlier archives.  That is because I want to start afresh this autumn, so that those who wish to begin at the beginning may easily do so.

Occasionally I will include an article that may not seem directly related to hokku, but you will find that it is in some way, even if it is only through the bridge of Nature or of spirituality or of common aesthetics.  That is in order to help us broaden our understanding of hokku and its place in the world.



Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme, except occasionally by accident.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing, awkward or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself (or herself), he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called haikai renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of  the kind of  hokku practiced from the 17th to the early 20th centuries.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing this kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach today is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the late 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live lives more in keeping with hokku aesthetics, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence; and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had often radically changed its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic, meditative spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and that gave it the clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.




In hokku as I teach it, we may write both from direct experience and from creative selection.

What is meant by direct experience?  It is a hokku written from viewing an actual event, with everything in it faithful to that experience, whether the hokku is written on the spot or hours or days or weeks later.

This principle goes back to a very old practice common in Chinese painting — that one entered and contemplated Nature, mountains and rivers, rocks and streams, trees and birds — and if one did this with sufficient awareness and perception, one would absorb the characteristics of such things, so that when one returned home to paint, one would paint a scene that, while not a photographic representation of Nature, nonetheless faithfully expressed the spirit of what was seen.

In life we accumulate a great many direct experiences of Nature.  We see spring rains and autumn rains, trees in bud and trees withered, wild geese arriving and leaving.  We see fog and snow, lightning and windstorms, twilights and dawns.  All of these experiences, if noticed with sufficient awareness, are stored away in the memory as a kind of library or vocabulary of sensory experience of Nature.

When writing a hokku, then, we have these options:

1.  One may write a verse faithfully from an immediate experience, a hokku of a single, actual event.  I did this with my verse:

Summer’s end;
The tall tree
Cut up in a heap.

Every part of that hokku is faithful to an event I experienced.

2.  One may write a verse from a mixture of direct experience and creative selection, meaning that while part of the verse reflects an actual “immediate” event, another part may be selected from the mental vocabulary of past sensory experience.

For example, one may have seen:

Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

But that requires a setting.  Perhaps the “real” setting is that you saw the shadows passing on the grass.  But you think the verse would be more expressive with a different setting, so you might make it:

The paper screen;
Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

The actual old Japanese hokku from which I have made this example was:

On the white wall,
Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

So one has the freedom to use creative selection in composing, based on one’s own personal vocabulary of things and events.  The key is to make it “real,” by which is meant keeping it in harmony with Nature.  And to do that, one must have direct experience of Nature.

3.  One may write a hokku entirely from creative selection, meaning the verse is not a reflection of a particular actual event, but rather a combination of elements from different past events, yet united and harmonious.

A good example of this is Bashō’s “Old Pond” verse:

The old pond;
A frog  jumps in —
The sound of water.

Now Bashō did not write this verse from direct experience, according to old accounts.  He had the last two lines, and was looking for a setting, so the story goes.  He tried many possibilities; someone suggested beginning it with the yamabuki, the yellow shrub Kerria japonica, often translated, rather confusingly, as “mountain rose” in the West.


But in a sudden inspiration, Bashō spoke “Furu ike ya,” — “The old pond”; and according to the possibly apocryphal story, everyone was thunderstruck.

Whatever the truth of the story, we know that Bashō would have experienced many frogs jumping into water in his life, and would have seen many old ponds.  He just did not happen to see this precise event when he composed the verse.  Instead it was composed from his mental vocabulary of past sensory events.  It was thus written from experience, but not from immediate experience.  This is an important point.

Some old hokku never happened.  Buson, for example, wrote a verse about stepping on his dead wife’s comb; but his wife was not dead!  He did it merely for effect.

One could write like that, but there is a great danger of artificiality.  The more we draw from our own imagination instead of from actual experience — whether immediate or from our mental vocabulary of past experiences — the less likely our hokku are to seem real and in keeping with Nature.  Too many of Buson’s hokku thus seem artificial and contrived for effect.

That is why I discourage students from writing strictly from the imagination.  In today’s world we are more and more separated from Nature, and because of that, our verses — if not directly connected by immediate experience or by creative selection from genuine past experience — tend to be rootless and “phony.”  And so we must keep in mind the old advice that when writing about pines, one goes to learn from the pine — meaning that if you want to express Nature faithfully, you must go and learn from Nature, absorbing it until you can express it naturally and without artificiality.

In our way of hokku we have the principle that the writer must get the ego out of the way, must be a mirror reflecting Nature.  That applies whether the experience is immediate or creative selection.  Our purpose in writing is to restore the unity of humans and Nature, not to escape into the imagination.

Our course is directly the opposite — out of abstract fantasy and back to Nature as the true home of humans, our mother and father, our origin and our ending.



In some parts of the country summer lingers.  In others autumn has already come.  Here is a hokku by Taigi, which expresses the transition from one to the other:

Autumn begins:
The summer shower becomes
A night of rain.

Taigi thought the sudden sprinkles of rain were just another brief summer shower; but when the rain persisted into the twilight and then the darkness of night, he realized that summer had ended, and autumn had come.

The harmony in this verse is in the rain persisting into the growing darkness, which is in keeping with the coming of autumn, the weakening of the Yang energies;  it is also in the persistence of the rain, in which we sense the long and darker interval until spring comes again.

Taigi has another hokku relating to this time of year:

Autumn begins;
The weak feeling
After a bath.

In the first verse we saw the beginning of autumn in the continuing rain.  In this verse we see it in the lack of physical energy after a warm bath.  Ordinarily it would not be significant, but Taigi feels in it the weakening of all the energies of Nature, and realizes that his body is expressing the coming of autumn, just as in the rest of Nature the high energies of summer have have begun their long weakening first into autumn, and eventually into the deep Yin of winter.



As mentioned in an earlier posting, traditionally morning glories in old hokku are flowers of the last part of summer and beginning of autumn.

Kyoroku has an interesting verse:

It shows
The backs of the morning glories —
The windy autumn.

The reverse side of morning glories, as anyone who has grown them will know, is pale and whitish.  When they are blown by the wind of autumn, we see that less obvious side that ordinarily does not draw our attention.

R. H. Blyth remarks correctly of this verse that “the whitish backs of the flowers are in accord with the autumn and its loneliness and poverty.”  I often speak of internal harmony in hokku, and that is precisely the internal harmony in this one.

Kyoroku does present it in a somewhat different way, however.  The common Japanese expression in hokku is aki no kaze — “the wind of autumn.”  Kyoroku uses instead, kaze no aki, literally “wind’s autumn,” or “windy autumn,” making a unity of the wind and the autumn, which become one thing, and because of the harmony with the rest of the verse, it also unifies the whole.

Notice again the “repeated subject” form that comes in so handy with hokku in English.  “It” and “windy autumn” both refer to the same thing.  That is why we call it “repeated subject.”



Bashō — the best-known writer of hokku — tried to follow the overall aesthetic in his verse that he found in the other contemplative arts of tea, of ink painting, of waka, and of renga.  He mentioned a representative master of each, and that for renga — the linked verse that preceded the kind of hokku Bashō wrote — was Sōgi.

Sōgi (1421-1502) is worth remembering not just because Bashō found his work admirable.  He is also the person who formalized the connection between the hokku and the seasons.

We must remember that Bashō did not invent the hokku.  Instead he developed it in a different direction by mixing the traditionally “high” subjects of the slightly longer Japanese waka — such as the cries of wild geese — with “low” subjects such as a frog jumping into the water, where formerly in waka it was customary to have the crying of frogs.  In doing so, he expanded the range of hokku while keeping its overall aesthetic.

Knowing then, that Bashō did not create the hokku, let’s take a look at some of the older hokku of Sōgi, which in their subject matter are very akin to the more elegant and deliberately poetic waka.

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

Wild geese in the clouds,
Ducks crying in the gorge;
The mountain path.

This morning they cover
The rains that fell in the night —
Falling leaves.

It is not hard to discern a general pattern in many of Sōgi’s earlier kind of hokku.  He likes to  present two things or events, and then to unify them by a third, for example the setting moon and the swift tide both joined by the summer sea; then the wild geese in the clouds, and the crying ducks in the gorge, both united by Sōgi’s perspective of witnessing them from a path in the mountains — geese above him, ducks below.  And finally, what falls in the morning (leaves) covering what fell in the night (rain) — the falling leaves covering the puddles and traces of rain.

It is a rather elegant and simple way to write, and again, with its choice of subjects it is closer to waka.  What Bashō did was to lessen the elegance and to increase the commonness, to lessen the obvious poetry, and to make the poetry more in the experience of everyday things seen in a new way — telling us things we already knew, but did not know that we knew until we read the hokku:

In the morning dew,
Muddy and fresh —
The melon.

After the elegant hokku of Sōgi, written as part of renga (linked verse), came the development of a new kind of renga that mixed in wit and humor, and was thus called “haikai no renga” — “playful” linked verse.  But this approach gradually degenerated into clever attempts at word-play.  It was this kind of low-class hokku that Bashō first learned.  But as his sensibilities developed, Bashō realized that the hokku could take on depth and profundity if it took a middle way — not quite the elegance of Sōgi’s hokku, and no longer the cheap wit and low humor of writers such as Teitoku — but a mixture of the high subjects of Sōgi’s “waka-like” hokku with the ordinary subjects of haikai;  and that is how the hokku we practice today, which mixes the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, came to be.  Of course Bashō was not the only one to see the advantages of such a middle way — there was for example Onitsura as well — but Bashō, probably because he had students to carry on his name, is the best known today.



Summer is ending, autumn is beginning.

I have already mentioned the transitional verse by Kyoroku that leads us into the season:

First on the ears of millet –
The autumn wind.

There is a related hokku by Chora:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

In Japan, morning glories were considered flowers of the beginning of autumn.  So when one sees the morning glories in bloom in late summer, and suddenly the delicate flowers are troubled by a cool wind, one senses the change to autumn.

So here too on this site we begin the change to autumn.

Buson wrote:

The fishing line trembles
In the autumn wind.

This does not mean he is sad, and then sees the line trembling in the wind;  it means that seeing the line trembling in the wind of autumn is in itself sadness — the seeing is the feeling.  That is because of all the layers of association it evokes — the withering of things, the ending of things, the certainty of mortality, and yet none of these things are mentioned in the verse, and mentioning them goes too far in explaining it.  That is the suggestiveness of hokku.

Bashō wrote:

In the cowshed,
The sound of mosquitos
Is weak.

Because this is Bashō, we know that there is some significance to this, not just a random event.  The insects that formerly buzzed with such vigor in the height of summer now sound only faint and feeble, their numbers diminishing.  That is in keeping with the weakening of vital energies in autumn.

Autumn, again, is the weakening of the Yang energy, the decline of the energy of warmth and life and active movement.  It corresponds to the period after middle age in human life, and to the late afternoon and twilight in the day.  All these things are automatically associated in hokku; we do not need to even think about them.  That is why the faint sound of the mosquitoes is so significant; it expresses the nature of autumn.  We hear all of autumn in that weak sound.

It is important to keep in mind that hokku are not metaphorical or symbolic.  The faint buzz of the mosquitoes is only the faint buzz of mosquitoes.  Everything else is merely suggested by them, below the level of the intellect.  All of my explanations are only to teach you with what mind a hokku should be read, with what attitude.  To put such things, that are automatically associated, into words, is really going too far, but for beginners it must be done.

We see the effect of these “hidden” layers of association in Issa’s evocative verse:

The autumn wind;
In Issa’s mind
There are thoughts.

What is the nature of those thoughts?  We know already, because the autumn wind tells us.  They do not have to be spelled out or made clear, and should not be.

Issa’s Autumn verse is an expression in that season of the same thing Bashō expressed in a Spring verse:

Many things
They bring to mind —
Cherry blossoms.

In both we see the sense of transience so common to hokku, and in both we also see the suggestiveness of hokku, which again are to be evocative, not in any way explanatory.   For either Issa or Bashō to tell us exactly what these thoughts are, exactly what is brought to mind, would remove every trace of poetry.  We do not have to ask.  We know.



In hokku the concept of harmony is very important.  If a verse is composed of elements that are inharmonious with one another, the hokku will fail.  But beyond that, the hokku should be in harmony with the season in which it is written.

It often seems initially odd to many Westerners that one should read a hokku in the season in which it is written, but it really is not an unfamiliar concept.  If we see a house with Christmas lights still up in August, we feel there is something out of place; and if we see a pottery Halloween pumpkin in May, we have the same feeling of disharmony.

It is the same with hokku, only we become even more aware of such discords of object and time, because hokku takes us away from our personal and social preoccupations and puts us in touch with the seasons that were for millennia the essential and unfailing context of our ancestors’ lives.

This is not something peculiar to hokku.  It is a commplace in the aesthetics of the culture out of which hokku grew.  And as R. H. Blyth reminds us, the contemplative arts of Japan share as their foundation virtually the same aesthetic principles, so that if you understand one, you understand them all.  That is why, on entering a traditional Japanese home, one will find a flower arrangement in harmony with the present season; and if there is a hanging scroll, it will depict a scene in harmony with the season.

To have an arrangement of lilies in midwinter, or of daffodils in autumn, is discordant — inharmonious.  And in hokku one is very sensitive to such things, because hokku is to put us in harmony with Nature, not to divide us from it.

That is why in hokku we both read and write verses in season.  It is true that we will sometimes use a verse from one season in discussion during a different season, but that is merely for purposes of learning and explanation, and it does not in any way negate the principle that the hokku and the season should be in harmony when written and when read.



Amid the heat,
He carries a load of wind —
The fan seller.

The arrangement of that summer hokku by Kakō is necessarily different in English.  The original is literally

Wind load carries heat ya fan-seller

But let’s look at the English structure:

Amid the heat,
He carries a load of wind —
The fan seller.

A setting in hokku is generally the BIG part of it, the wider context in which something takes place — often, but certainly not always, the weather.  Here the setting is:

Amid the heat

The subject is obviously the fan seller, but in this verse we find the very common and useful technique of “repeated subject,” where the subject is referred to once by a pronoun (he, she, it), an then again by its actual name or title.  So we see

HE carries a load of wind —

Both “he” and “the fan seller” are the same subject.  This hokku technique is endlessly useful, because it fits the syntax of English very well.

And finally we have the action, that which is moving or changing in the verse.   What is the fan seller doing?  The answer is the action:

(He) carries a load of wind.

So this verse has setting, subject, and action, and is consequently what we call a “standard” hokku.  There are countless examples of this pattern, many of them excellent verses.  But keep in mind, if you are a new reader here, that this is not the only pattern.  If you visit this site regularly, you will learn more of them, and can then apply them to your own practice of hokku.

This verse has both the sensation (the heat and the anticipation of coolness) and the subtle humor characteristic of hokku as a whole.  Remember that the humor of hokku is very slight and sometimes almost imperceptible.  It is not at all the “milk-spouting-from-the-nose” kind of humor we think of in today’s society.  It is more like the smile on the Mona Lisa — sometimes it seems to be there, and sometimes….



Today is another unusually hot day, so here is an appropriate old hokku by Buson:

Spider webs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

Entering a grove of old trees on a hot day, we expect to find some relief from the heat.  Instead we discover that among the old trees not a breath of fresh air stirs; and in our passing, a spider web catches us on the face making the heat seem even more pervasive and heavy.  Looking around we see other webs among the branches here and there,  and realize that

Spider webs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

In some other time, some other place, one might find them quite different.  That is how attuned to season and weather hokku is.

This verse is the type known as a “statement” hokku — a verse in which a simple statement of (perceived) fact is made, without additional comment or explanation.  If one pays attention to these different types of hokku and their patterns, one quickly learns how good hokku are constructed and written.



Sometimes on this site I will seem to go far afield, but generally there is a thread leading in some way back to hokku or the spirit of hokku.

Johann Peter Hebel, who wrote in Swiss-German, has a very remarkable poem:


S’isch wor, Her Jäck, i ha kei eigene Baum,
i ha kei Huus, i ha kei Schof im Stal,
kei Pflueg im Feld, kei Immestand im Hoff,
kei Chatz, kei Hüenli, mengmol au kei Geld.
“S macht nüt.  ‘S isch doch im ganze Dorf kei Buur
so rich as ich.  Der wüsset wie me’s macht.
Me meint, me heigs.  So meini au, i heigs
im süesse Wahn, und wo ne Bäumli blüeiht,
‘s isch mi, und wo ne Feld voll Ähri schwankt,
‘s isch au mi; wo ne Säuli Eichle frisst,
es frisst sie us mim Wald.

So bin i rich. Doch richer bin i no
im Heuer, in der Erndt, im frohe Herbst.
I sag:  Jez chömmer Lüt, wer will und mag,
und heuet, schnidet, hauet Trübli ab!
I ha mi Freud an allem gha, mi Herze
an alle Düften, aller Schöni g’labt.
Was übrig isch, isch euer.  Tragets heim…


It’s true, Mr. Jäck, I have no tree of my own,
I have no house, I have no sheep in the stall,
No plow in the field, no beehive in the yard ,
No cat, no dog, often also no money.
It doesn’t matter.  For there is in the whole village no farmer
As rich as I.   You know how it is done?
think I have it — I think too that I have it
In sweet foolishness, and where a tree blooms
It is mine, and where a field of grain waves
It is also mine — and where a pig eats acorns
It eats them in my woods.

So I am rich; but even richer
In Haying, in the Harvest, in happy Autumn.
I say, “Now come, people, who will and may,
And mow, and reap, and cut the grapes.
I have had my joy in all of it —
Have refreshed my heart
With all the scents and all the beauty.
What remains is yours — carry it home!

This Swiss farmer’s “sweet foolishness” is well on the way to the wisdom that results from William Blake’s counsel:

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

Hebel’s poem is very much in keeping with the old hokku by Kikaku:

A beggar;
He wears Heaven and Earth
For summer clothes.

Thomas Traherne, in his Centuries of Meditations, wrote:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars : and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”



Hokku deals with Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  But here are a few old senryū, which deal instead with human quirks and foibles:

When winter comes,
The pawn shop
Is in summer.

One could say the same thing of our modern thrift stores; people get rid of winter things in summer, and summer things in winter.

And something countless people have felt in one way or another:

Too late;
One cannot put a quilt
on a tombstone.

We do not realize how much kinder and more appreciative we should have been to our parents until it is too late.

And another “too late”:

Finding out
She had a crush on me;
Fifty years after.

But this clever fellow thinks ahead:

Here with her mother;
When old,
This is how she’ll look.

If he’s really clever, this will have happened at the girlfriend stage, not the wife stage, on seeing mother and daughter together.  But of course a clever girl will realize the same thing when her blond Adonis is seen next to his bald, chubby father.

And children:

The child who fell
Goes home
To cry.

Of course!  His crying would be pointless without his mother hearing it.  It is the sympathy, the “Oh, you poor thing!  It’s all right” that is the money to be earned from the fall.

And my own variation on an old senryū:

Breaking up with him,
His angel girlfriend
Becomes a devil.

And a slight variation on one that seems appropriate with current social trends:

His older wife,
Applying face cream

Perhaps you have noticed that unlike hokku, senrȳu generally need no specified season.  And while we say that in hokku the poetry is not in the words but in the mind of the reader, in senrȳu poetry is simply thrown overboard.

The language of hokku is simple and ordinary, but respectable, something like a Quaker farmer; but the language of senrȳu goes far beyond that into extreme informality, and we are lucky when it does not descend into outright crudity.

Good hokku are infrequent things not to be sought out and forced; we must just be aware and open and patient until one happens.  But given the shallowness and triviality of modern society, it seems that all one need do is walk down a street to encounter senryū, for example this, which I saw today:

A day spa has opened —
In what used to be
The funeral home.

It is not hard to see how very different senryū are from hokku in spirit.  Where hokku remove the ego, dissolving it into a unity with Nature, senryū drag the ego out by the scruff of the neck and hold it up in public, letting all see how very peculiar, vulgar, and yet strangely humorous it is — and of course what they are really seeing is themselves.



There is something very mysterious and significant about a question.

In the Zen sect, one major practice is the continual asking of an internal question — “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” perhaps, or “What was my true face before I was born?”

These are questions that cannot be ended by an ordinary response.  In fact, one must go beyond all intellectual and logical and rational answers, beating one’s head against the wall of the question again and again, hour after hour, week after week, perhaps even year after year until finally — if all is favorable — all at once the wall falls of itself and the answer beyond words is revealed.

The spiritual practice advocated by Ramana Maharshi, the noted south Indian saint of the early 20th century, was asking one’s self continuously “Who am I?”  Again, all ordinary answers had to be put aside, because it is the ongoing state of questioning that will finally — again if one is fortunate — lead to realization.

In the Western tale of the Holy Grail, we find the naive young Parzival witnessing a strange ritual in the Grail Castle.  He sees the wounded Fisher King, and he sees the Grail brought in, glowing with its own light.  He is supposed to ask “Whom does the Grail serve?” but fails to do so.  In Jungian psychology this is very significant– it is the equivalent of failing to ask the meaning of life.  The question need not be answered to be effective — but like the questions of Zen and Ramana Maharshi, it must be posed and then the matter will develop.

We find parallels again and again between hokku and the higher levels of spiritual practice and realization, but though there are parallels, I caution again that no one ever became enlightened by reading or writing hokku.  Nonetheless, the questioning state is held so highly in hokku that there is a specific category devoted only to posing a question that remains unanswered, as in this Autumn verse of Kitō, which I give here in a translation very close to that of R. H. Blyth:

Dense fog;
What is being shouted
Between hill and boat?

The whole effect of such a hokku lies in the state of unknowing generated by the question that is asked but not answered.  That is why in question hokku, an answer is neither given nor expected.  It is only that focused state brought about by the question — that heightened condition of not knowing — that we want.

It is written in the Cloud of Unknowing,

“That right as bi the defailing of oure bodely wittes, we
bigine redeliest to kom to knowing of goostli thinges…”

“That just as by the failure of our bodily wits, we begin most readily to come to knowing of spiritual things…”

In the same way the unanswered question of hokku opens us up to silence that is beyond the intellect, beyond questions.



In Western poetry the “self” plays a very large role.  In Objective Hokku, however, the self is not only minimized, but often does not appear at all.  That is because in Objective Hokku the writer is the mirror of Nature.  The self is like dust that obscures that mirror; the more of self, the less Nature can be clearly reflected.

In hokku the writer is to get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  There are many other kinds of verse in which the writer can express the self in any way desired; but in hokku the self is generally an obstacle, not a help.

That is why in Objective hokku we very seldom use the words “I,” “me,” and “my.”  In fact they are commonly only used when not using them would be awkward or too vague.

When the self does appear in hokku, it is treated as we would treat anything else in Nature, the same way we write about a fox, or a dove, or a tree — objectively.

Because of this, the aesthetics of Objective Hokku frown on verses that bring the writer too much to the foreground, drawing the reader’s attention.

In this regard, R. H. Blyth very appropriately quotes Robert Frost’s A Tuft of Flowers:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared,
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

Contrast that with much of Western poetry, which intends to draw our attention to the writer — his or her thoughts, emotions, hopes, fears, desires, complaints, etc. etc. etc.

Knowing all this, we look at a hokku such as Chiyo-ni’s

The well bucket
Seized by a morning glory;
Borrowing water.

This is a very popular verse, but unfortunately it draws our attention to the writer’s sensitive aestheticism, so finely tuned that instead of disturbing the morning glory that has entwined the bucket, she will go to borrow water from a neighbor.  This is not quite as precious as Oscar Wilde’s remark that he found it harder and harder every day to live up to his blue china, but the effect is perilously close.

And try as we might, that is the effect we get from the verse, because as Blyth points out, beyond that there is really nothing else — no genuine poetic connection between the  green tendrils entwining the bucket and Chiyo-ni going next door to borrow a bucket of water.  And overt aestheticism is not at home in hokku.

What we learn from all this is to avoid bringing the self to the foreground in Objective Hokku, but instead to either keep it out entirely or treat it objectively when it does appear.   Our approach as writers should be like that of the mower — acting with no intent to draw one thought of the reader to us.  That is in keeping with the principle of selflessness in hokku.

There is a senryu satirizing Chiyl-ni’s hokku:

Yokutoshi wa   Chiyo idobata wo satte ue

The next year,
Chiyo planted farther
From the well.



In a previous posting, I told you that hokku are not symbols for anything, are not metaphors.  Instead, hokku make use of layers of associations.  They do not say one thing is another (metaphor), nor do they say one thing is like another (simile).  This is a matter difficult for some people to understand, because they are so accustomed to simile and metaphor in Western verse that they see it where it does not exist.

There is an interesting yet very simple summer hokku written by Chine-jo (the –jo suffix tells us the writer is a woman).

Easily it glows —
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We could say that this verse has a double meaning, because it was written as Chine-jo’s death verse — but that is not entirely accurate.  The verse is not a metaphor for Chine-jo’s death, but rather it uses the old principle that in hokku, one small thing can hold the meaning of something much larger.  For example, we say that in hokku one leaf is all of Autumn.  In this verse, the firefly’s glow going easily out expresses all such things in Nature, the fact that if the ego is not struggling against Nature, everything becomes “easy” in life and death, because the individual will dissolves into Nature’s will, as it is put in Canto III of Dante’s Paradiso,

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

Rather it is necessary to this blessed existence
To keep one’s self within the Divine will,
So that our wills may be one…

E ’n la sua volontate è nostra pace:

And in His will is our peace.

That is the mind of Chine-jo, whose will has become one with the firefly, with Nature, so that

Easily it glows,
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We will often find hokku that have their own meaning, to be read as referring to nothing beyond themselves, yet they are applied to events in life that are expressed through them.  We find them — as here — in death verses, in verses written for greetings and partings and other such occasions, which is why we call such hokku “occasion” hokku.

It is very important when writing occasion hokku that we do not cross the line into making them meaningful only when applied to the event, in which case they would be metaphors.  The must be fully strong within and as themselves — like this verse of Chine-jo — and yet fully expressive of the occasion for which they are written — as we find in this verse.



Hokku at its best was and is spiritual verse.

That does not mean “religious” in any dogmatic sense.  It is not about dogmas and beliefs.  It is spiritual in that it re-unites — if only briefly — subject and object, humans and Nature.

We are accustomed to verses in which a writer writes about himself and his emotions, or about his opinions and comments on things and events.  Many think this is essential to being modern and relevant.  But they forget that what is ultimately relevant is our relation to Nature, from which we come, by which we live, and to which we return.  Forgetting that has led us to the dangerous worldwide environmental situation in which we now find ourselves.

In hokku we do not dwell on ourselves and our emotions, we do not expound on things and events.  Instead we return to the the most primal level of existence — sensory experience.  We are simply presented with things and events, and all we need do is experience them.

On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

It is fundamental to hokku to know that this is not a symbol of something else.  It is not a metaphor.  It is only what it is. You will find nothing hidden in it, nothing to interpret.  There is no attached meaning to it, nor commentary, nor emotion.  We are simply to experience it.  And that experience is hokku.

Hokku are simply things and events, without interpretation, without added ornaments or commentary.

Have you ever noticed that a thing is an event, that our common separation of the world into nouns and verbs — things and actions — is really false?   That a leaf, for example, does not exist in the abstract?  There is only a leaf growing, or coloring, or trembling in the wind, or falling, or lying on the ground, or decaying.  We cannot separate thing and action, thing and change, though the change may be so slow as to be imperceptible — but even then there is simply a leaf leafing.  A thing is an event, and without things there are no events.  So we could say that a hokku is an experience of a thing-event.

Not everything is hokku, however.  Hokku are thing-events in which we feel an inexpressible significance, something that cannot be put into words, but can only be experienced.

On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

But why do we feel this unspoken significance?  We could take this verse apart, and any element of it will have some effect separately, but it is only by combining them that we get the hokku effect, which is a sense of unity and harmony.  Without this harmony of elements, a hokku will not work — it will not be effective.

There is no writer present.  When we read it, there is only the crow perched on the withered branch in the autumn evening.  If we are reading it with our full attention, that is all that is.  The reader thus becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (the crow on the withered bough in autumn) disappears.

That is why we speak of a hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment.  That is the “Zen” of hokku, and anyone can know from experience that it is not theory but fact.  If one is reading a hokku intently, the “self” is forgotten, and only the hokku exists — not as words and lines, but as a sensory experience of a thing-event.

We have all had a similar experience when, on reading a book or watching a movie, everything else disappeared from our perception, leaving only what was read or watched.  So there is nothing mysterious about this.  But we must not forget that it is only a “little” and momentary enlightenment — a far lesser analog to the greater enlightenment spoken of in meditative traditions.

Hokku, as R. H. Blyth said, tell us things we know, but did not know that we know.  They “show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, — and not recognized it.”

Yet no one has ever become enlightened in the greater sense simply by reading hokku.  One should not suppose that writing and reading hokku is in itself a substitute for spiritual practice.  Even Bashō, the most famous writer of hokku, is said to have been distraught at the time of his death, lamenting that he had become obsessed with hokku and its wider context of haikai, and had not spent enough time on spiritual development.  We must not repeat that mistake.

We have seen that hokku are about thing-events, and that nothing exists in the abstract, only in relation to something else.  It is the same with hokku, which have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  In hokku everything takes place not at some indefinite time, but in relation to a season.  So there are Spring hokku, Summer hokku, Autumn or Fall hokku and Winter hokku.  Because season is so important, old hokku generally contained a kind of “key” word that would indicate the season.  It might be stated directly:

The summer moon

Or it might be shown through a less obvious season word.

The morning glory

A verse about a morning glory is an autumn verse in the old Japanese system.

Because of this seasonal classification of things, verses could easily be anthologized not only by season, but also by subject.  But over time this system became too  complex and rigid, so that by the late 19th century there were dictionaries of season words, and it took a student years to learn and apply them well.  The system had become unwieldy and impractical, and when hokku moved out of Japan and began to be written in other countries, the number of possible subjects and their seasonal classifications became ridiculously expanded.

Nonetheless, season is very important to hokku, as we have seen.  It places a thing-event in its context within the year, so it is not just a floating abstraction.  That is why modern hokku did not abandon the important seasonal connection, it just shifted from the complex season word system to the very simple and practical marking of each verse with its season, whether Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter.  The student no longer has to spend years on learning seasonal classifications of every possible subject.  This simplicity is very much in keeping with the nature of hokku, which is avoidance of excess and keeping to the essence of things.

When we write a hokku, therefore, we are writing a thing-event in a seasonal context.  That helps to give a great deal of atmosphere to a verse.  Suppose, for example, we are writing about rain.  In hokku there is no such thing as “rain” in the abstract, just as nothing in reality exists in the abstract.  There is only

Spring rain;

Summer rain;

Autumn rain;

Winter rain.

By just adding the season, we greatly change the effect of the hokku.  How great a difference there is, for example, between a Spring moon and an Autumn moon!

If you have been paying close attention, you will perhaps have begun to notice that hokku is all about relationships and interconnections.  Nothing in the universe exists in isolation, but only in relation to something else.   Awareness of those relationships is what enables the writer to create a hokku filled with harmony and unity.

This harmony is a fundamental principle not only of hokku but of all the contemplative arts, including flower arrangement.  To have an arrangement of  Spring flowers in the Fall is inharmonious, and does not give us a sense of unity; the flowers are out of keeping with the season.  It would be like Halloween in May.  Writers of hokku must be very attentive to harmony.

A hokku is not simply an assemblage of unrelated things and events.  Everything in a verse relates to everything else, and if there is something out of harmony — out of keeping with the other elements and the season — the verse will fail as hokku.

Harmony in hokku does not mean everything must be the same.  In summer, a verse about heat is very much in keeping with the season.  That is a harmony of identity.  But there is also the harmony of contrast.  In hokku we are not only very aware of harmony of similarity, but also of the perceived harmony of opposites — of contrasts.  That is why along with a verse about heat, we may find a Summer verse such as Onitsura’s

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

So remember the two kinds of harmony in hokku — similarity and contrast.  A snowstorm in winter is similarity; a warm fire in winter is contrast.  Both give us a sense of appropriateness, of harmony and unity.

Because harmony and unity are so important to hokku, we do not write a hokku out of season, and we also read hokku in their proper season.  Of course when teaching I will sometimes use out-of-season verses as examples, but that is only to help the student.  It is important to remember that except for teaching, hokku are written and read in the appropriate season.  And if you have been reading on my site for a long time, you will perhaps have noticed that even in teaching, I tend to favor verses that are in season at the time when I write on a given topic.

The interrelationships of elements in hokku bring us back to their spirituality.  Spiritual traditions tell us that our sense of separateness is illusion.  If one does a spiritual practice, one begins to discover an underlying unity among all things that superficially seem separate.  And that can drastically change how one perceives both the world and the “self.”  Hokku, again, is only a little hint of what such a profound perception is — again a kind of analog on a much lesser level.

Hokku returns us to Nature, to OUR nature — our sun nature and moon nature, our rain and wind nature, our river, stream and pond nature, our dragonfly and river stone nature.  It rejoins what had been cut asunder, and the universe once more takes on something far deeper than intellectual meaning — it becomes profoundly significant in its smallest manifestations — a leaf sinking through clear water, a bird scratching amid dry leaves.

That is hokku.



The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.

First, the basics.

The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.

Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.

It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;

Dog tracks
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.

Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it.  True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way.  Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.

Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an Autumn hokku:

The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.

First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves.  Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following.  We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before.  And then there is the age of the dog.  We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog.   We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace.  And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root.  The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past.  Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku.   And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified.  That makes for good hokku.

So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another.  Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.

We have seen Bashō’s hokku

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku.  So that is the seasonal context.  Autumn is the decline of yang into yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity.  It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night.  And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow.  And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (yang) to inactivity (yin).  And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn.  So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.

We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku.  That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W.  The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku.  Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.

What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening.  Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening.  But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn.  And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.

There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast — of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream.  Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination.  But I will discuss this more in another posting.

For now, keep in mind these essentials:

Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.

Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.

Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.

Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.



Some people think that verse must concern itself with such things as violence and war, if that is what is happening in the world — and it usually is.

Hokku, however, has a higher purpose than importing into itself the chaos and fragmentation of modern society; hokku is and should remain contemplative verse, and that is impossible if it deals with subjects that disturb the mind.  Leave such things to other kinds of verse.  In hokku we know quite well enough that society has made a mess of things.  Our purpose is not to dwell on that, but to transcend it.

There is of course nothing wrong in writing “protest” or “social commentary” verse in other forms.  The attitude of hokku, however, is that if people really want to change the world, they should first change themselves — should work on ending the internal violence that manifests externally as war.  Aldous Huxley once said that

Good Being results in the most appropriate kind of good doing.”

And we should remember the Quaker statement:

This is the true ground of opposition to war, namely that a Christian is to live a life that does away with the occasion for war.

We may substitute “writer of hokku” for “Christian” and have the essence of the matter.

Hokku is not all things to all men.  Its purpose is not the lamenting of human follies and social injustice.  The purpose of hokku is to re-unite the inner and the outer, the subject and the object, the writer and Nature.  It is a way of returning us to Nature and to our true nature.

I often use Thoreau’s words:

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”

And that is what we must constantly be aware of in hokku –- that to really change society deeply and fundamentally, we first must change ourselves. Otherwise we become, as Carl Gustav Jung warned, merely superficially respectable and socially responsible while dark things lie seething in the  hidden unconscious that may eventually manifest themselves in daylight, so that we know not

“…what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

And so we continue the old tradition in hokku of avoiding subjects that disturb the mind, among them violence and war.  It exists for a reason, and a very good one.



Hokku in English has very definite standards and principles, and these extend even to the appearance of a verse on the page, specifically to lineation, capitalization, and punctuation.

An English-language hokku is a verse of three lines, the middle line often — but not always — visually longer than the others.  Here is a typical hokku, by Ryôta, set in August, the “month of leaves.”

At every house
A morning glory blooms;
The month of leaves.

The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts, a longer and a shorter.
The two parts of hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation.
The hokku ends with appropriate punctuation.

Follow these standards and you will have the accurate form of hokku — the container which holds the content, just as a shell holds a nut.

In hokku everyone follows the same form.  That is because the form works excellently, is very appropriate, and has proved its worth.  But equally important, it gives no occasion to  bickering over form.  It thus contributes importantly to a sense of community in hokku.  We speak the same “language” of form, the form works superbly, and that enables us to concentrate on content.

Now regarding punctuation, its great virtue is that it guides the reader through the hokku smoothly and effortlessly, and without confusion.  It enables very fine shades of pause and emphasis, very important in how we experience a hokku.

As a general guide, here is how to punctuate hokku:

A semicolon indicates a strong, definite pause.  It is generally used to enable the reader to absorb the setting of a hokku, for example in presenting the setting before moving on to the rest:

The summer wind;

A dash is used to indicate a longer, more meditative and connective pause, in cases such as

The summer wind —

It is typed as two hyphens.

One may also use ellipses for that purpose:

The summer wind …

A question mark is usually used to ask a question that in hokku is never answered:

The summer wind?

The exclamation mark is seldom used; it indicates something surprising or unexpected:

A summer wind!

The comma indicates a very brief, connective pause.  It is often found at the end of a line that begins with a preposition:

In the summer wind,

A hokku always ends with punctuation, whether a period (.) — which is the most common — or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!) very sparingly used, and also the seldom-used final ellipses (….).

That is hokku form in a nutshell.

As for length, we should not exceed by too much the standard, which in English is a pattern of 2/3/2 essential words.  Essential words are those words essential for meaning, but not for grammatical correctness.  For example, we have already seen the verse

At every house
A morning glory blooms;
The month of leaves.

To show you how loosely and thus flexibly we understand essential words, we can say this has a pattern of 3/2/3/, well within our standard of 2//3/2, from which we should not depart too drastically.  In arriving at that, we may consider these words in the first line as essential:

1. at every house

In the second line, morning glory may be taken as a whole because it is one thing, so we understand it as

2.  morningglory blooms

And finally in the third line, we can regard it either as

3.  month of leaves

which gives us 3 essential words, or we can consider it a whole — as we did morning glory — by regarding it as “leaf-month,” thus one essential word.  It matters little, because in either case we have not exceeded our standard by too much.

This flexibility is very important to English language hokku, because a thing in English may be as visually brief as the word “fly” or as long as the word “dragonfly,” so we must be sparing while not becoming too rigid.  The standard of poverty, if followed, ensures that in hokku we use only a few simple, ordinary words, including only what is necessary for clarity and good grammar.

There is thus nothing peculiar about the appearance of hokku in English.  It uses ordinary language, ordinary words, ordinary punctuation.  And again that frees us to concentrate on content, because though form may make something appear to be a hokku visually, it is only the content that will make a real hokku.



In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.  The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite.  And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year.  The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August.  Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave.  And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of  hokku.  We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event.  And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in a hokku.  In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a hokku I wrote:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

Read it, see it, feel it.  Can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood?  Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku.  It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, everything changes, nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing.  It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma Mère My Mother’s Castle:

“Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.”

“Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.”

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes.  Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins.  Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.”

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows.  It is not necessary to tell that to the children.”

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.