Once a student has a good foundation in the principles and practice of hokku, he or she is then free to explore and develop.  And in doing this, one learns to take what is helpful from the old teachers such as Bashō, but not to follow them slavishly.  If one thinks everything Bashō wrote is good hokku, then one does not understand hokku.

Bashō wrote this autumn verse:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite — “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

But to get to the point, as an English-language hokku it is too long.  One would have difficulty using it as a model.  But it does contain some strong sensations, and one could make hokku from it, for example:


A windy night;
Listening to rain dripping
Into the basin.

We do not need the word “autumn” within the verse, because all hokku are classified by season when written.  We could make it

The long night;
Listening to rain dripping
Into the basin.


A long night;
The sound of rain dripping
Into the basin.

Or we could try

Autumn gusts;
Midnight rain dripping
Into the basin.

Each changes the sensation and the feeling a bit, and that is exactly the way one composes hokku.  We do not want to say too much (Bashō says a bit too much in his overly-long verse), but we also do not want to say too little.

Notice that we have to choose, we have to be selective.  In Bashō’s original, there is the banana plant, the storm, the basin, the rain, the listening, and the night.  That is really too much for a hokku in English.   So we learn from the poverty of hokku not to use too many things.  But if we are careful, we can combine elements effectively in a small space, as in the last example above:

Autumn gusts;
Midnight rain dripping
Into the basin.

It has autumn, the wind, the night, the rain, the dripping, and the basin.

Do not misunderstand and think that I am writing about how to translate Bashō’s verse.  No, I am writing about how to write hokku in English — the process of composition, which is of necessity different in some respects from that in Japanese.

In Japanese, for example, one can say Bashō — which means a kind of hardy banana plant — but in English one cannot simply translate Bashō nowaki shite
as “the windblown banana,” because the reader will see a long yellow fruit instead of the torn, broad green leaves of a large banana plant.  One has to take into account the length and the shortness of this or that word in English when composing, in selecting how many elements one may use in a single verse, and in deciding how to combine them for strong effect.

And yes, for those of you who do not already know it, Bashō took for his pen name the Bashō — the hardy banana plant.



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