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 —
Walking-fallen-leaves-on-bird ‘s sound

Again what is heard is a “walking-on-fallen-leaves 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.

And that is the effect Bashō intended to convey.

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.