December will soon begin, and with it comes the holiday season.

How does one deal with holidays in hokku?  The same way one deals with a season.  A holiday verse is like a miniature seasonal verse — in other words, it should express the character of the holiday, how it manifests — with emphasis always upon Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

The most important holidays of the year come in December — in the winter.  Why is that?  It is because in older times, when people lived closer to Nature and the seasons, December was the time when the days were at their shortest, and darkness seemed to threaten the world.  So people needed a time of hope and cheer and encouragement, and they began to celebrate the “rebirth” of the sun in the darkest part of winter, telling themselves that light and warmth would come again to the world.

Some of us still celebrate the holidays in that old way — remembering and celebrating the Winter Solstice, that point in the wheel of the year when the days stop growing shorter and begin once more to grow longer — Wintersonnenwende, as it is called in German — the time when the sun “turns” in winter, and the light of day again begins to lengthen.  In English it is often called the Winter Solstice, from Latin solstitia, meaning the time when the sun “stands still” — that critical point when it seems to pause in the lowering of its arc across the southern sky before reversing.

There should be nothing new in this to students of hokku, who will remember that when either of the two elements — Yang or Yin — reaches its ultimate point, then it changes into its opposite.  That is exactly what happens at the Winter Solstice.  The growing yin of decreasing light changes into its opposite, and the “yang” day begins to grow longer again in comparison to the “yin” night.

I prefer the old term “Yule,” which is the word still used in Scandinavian countries for what others may call Christmas.  Have you ever thought that celebrating the birth of Christ near the time of the Solstice is just another symbolic way of celebrating the encouraging return of light and hope?  The early Christians just adapted the older holiday to their use, so “Christmas” is just Yule under another name — as we see in the line from the well-known seasonal song,

Troll the ancient Yuletide carol.

And of course the other line,

See the blazing Yule before us.

The “blazing Yule” is of course the Yule log, an old tradition of the holiday, obviously connected with light and warmth.

So the Winter Solstice is Yule, and the whole holiday period is Yuletide — the time of Yule.  I tend to think of it as the Twelve Days of Yule, beginning with the day of the Solstice and continuing on to New Year’s Day.  That whole period for me is Yuletide — a time to be happy and hopeful.

It is also a time to think of others, which is something that is particularly emphasized in the wonderful old black and white movie based on the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol.  In spite of the latest Hollywood effort, the absolute best and definitive version of this kindly story is that in which the British actor Alastair Sim is “Scrooge,” the stingy, “rational,” selfish part of all of us.  So do not bother with other versions — just go that unsurpassed old version — and be sure it is in the original black and white, not any “colorized” attempt.  It teaches us that the holiday time is not a time to focus on the “self,” but rather a time to focus on others.  That is a very “hokku-like” attitude, and very much in keeping with the spirituality of hokku.

So, whether we call it Yule or Christmas or Noël or something else, the holiday season of December can provide some interesting hokku if we pay close attention to it.

Take one of the most pleasant seasonal songs, In the Bleak Midwinter:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Regular readers know that I often lament the use of metaphor and simile in verse, but it is really just the misuse or poor use of it to which I object.  It is used very effectively in these lines.  We could make one or more hokku of it, of course dropping the similes:

Bleak midwinter;
Earth is hard,
Water frozen.

That is a bit like the early hokku of Sōgi that present two things unified by a third, which in this case is the first line.  Making hokku like this does not, of course, prevent us from enjoying and appreciating the original verse, which had a different purpose.  And no matter which one likes better, we can still enjoy our own efforts based on an original, for example,

Bleak midwinter;
Snow falls
Upon snow

We should generally only write hokku based on other verses if they also faithfully reflect the character of the season and our own experience.

So as the days of Yule approach, we can think about not only winter hokku, but also holiday hokku, a subcategory of their own.

“December” comes to us from Latin, in which it means simply “Tenth month.”  It reminds us of old Quaker reckoning, in which the months were numbered, as were the days of the week.  For the Quakers, December was “Twelfth Month”

Going a bit farther back, our ancestors were more expressive — “Yule Moon,” “Wolf Moon,” and “Winter Moon,” as well as “Holy Moon.”  “Moon” is the origin of our “month,” which was originally based on the phases of the moon.

So December, “Yule Month,” is the first “real” month of Winter.  As part of winter, it again raises the possibility for good hokku of contrast — light amid darkness, warmth amid cold, and other such things.  And it brings with it the possibility also for holiday hokku.




A hokku appropriate to late autumn, by the woman Sono-jo:

A dog barking
At the sound of the leaves;
The windstorm.

It is an odd fact in hokku that the simplest are often the best, and this is a very good hokku because it has very strong sensation.  By sensation we mean that it affects the senses strongly.  In this we hear the dog’s frantic barking and the sound of the blowing leaves, and we hear the wind and we feel its force.  Everything in this verse is in motion, and that is very much in keeping with the strength of the windstorm.

Structurally, it is a standard hokku, by which we mean it has a setting, a subject, and an action:

Setting:  The windstorm
Subject:  A dog
Action: Barking at the sound of the leaves

In the original, the verse looks like this:

Ha no oto ni     inu hoe-kakaru     arashi kana
Leaves ‘ sound at   dog barking      gale      kana

The kana at the end is merely a word used sometimes for emphasis, but far more often in hokku merely to fill out the required number of phonetic units in Japanese, in this case the usual seventeen.

More important is the fact that by reading and pondering such verses and their structure, one will quickly learn how to write hokku in English and other languages today, but of course one must also understand the underlying aesthetics to avoid going astray.

I repeat again and again that the real subject of a hokku is the season in which it is written, that each hokku should express that season through something happening in it that shows the character of the season.  This verse of Sono-jo does that superbly.

By the way, I am tending to alternate between late autumn hokku and winter hokku in these few days before the beginning of December, because some readers live where it is already winter, others where autumn still lingers.  I am speaking of the Northern Hemisphere.  Readers in the Southern Hemisphere will be in quite another season!



I have to confess that years of involvement with hokku have made me very leery of metaphor and simile in verse.  You will recall that metaphor is saying that one thing is another — for example when people say “We are just two ships passing in the night.”  Simile means that one thing is like another  (just think of the word “similar”), for example, “He stands like a rock.”

In hokku we do not use metaphor or simile, because doing so divides our attention.  So in hokku we let things be what they are.  The moon is the moon, not a “silent messenger of the night,” or whatever one might dream up.

And as I said, the effect of this, over time, is that we become more sensitive to the use of metaphor and simile in other kinds of verse, finding it in general a distraction and a detraction.  More and more, we just want a writer to let things be as they are.

There was an interesting fellow named William Sharp who wrote verses in the latter half of the 19th century.  Sometimes his language was a little too archaic and anachronistically Elizabethan, but many of his verses showed real promise.  All too often, however, they are spoiled by simile, as in the first few lines of The Wind at Fidenae:

Fresh from the Sabines
The Beautiful Hills,
The wind bloweth.
Down o’er the slopes,
Where the olives whiten
As though the feet
Of the wind were snow-clad:
Out o’er the plain
Where a paradise of wild blooms waveth,
And where, in the sunswept
Leagues of azure,
A thousand larks are
As a thousand founts
‘Mid the perfect joy of
The depth of heaven.

“Bloweth?”  “Waveth”?”  No one really talked like that in the latter half of the 19th century, but all too often such archaicisms were looked on as “poetic” language.

And then there are lines like

“As though the feet of the wind
Were snow-clad.”

One could get away with that if one happened to be an ancient Greek or Roman, when the forces of Nature were simultanously phenomena and gods or goddesses — like “Rosy-fingered Dawn.”  But it did not really work in the 19th century, nor does it work today.

The wind does not have snow-clad feet, nor, in spite of Carl Sandburg, does fog come on little cat feet.  Do you see how the moment one adds these, the mind becomes divided between the real thing — between the wind and snow-clad feet, between fog and the feet of a cat?  The mind can only work with one image at a time, so simile and metaphor force us to split our attention, which detracts from the thing itself.

So when I read Sharp, I find myself wanting to rewrite him, to take out the Elizabethan language and the similes, perhaps ending with something like

Fresh from the Sabines
The Beautiful Hills,
The wind blows.
Down o’er the slopes
Where the olives whiten,
Out to the plain
Where the wild blooms wave;

You get the idea.

In hokku we do not divide the attention with metaphor and simile.  Instead we combine elements into a unity.  Often there is a setting — the wider environment in which something happens.  Within that setting there is the subject of the verse, and that subject acts or is acted upon.  In this combining of elements there is no division of the attention, no detracting from any of the elements.  Each is simply what it is, and in that is the simplicity and the effectiveness of hokku.





An old winter hokku by Sōgi, who lived long before Bashō:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping
Of duck wings.

We can easily see its form.  It is:

Setting:  In the freezing night.
Subject: duck wings
Action:  the ceaseless flapping of

In other words, we have what is common to many hokku — a setting, a subject, and an action — a movement, something moving or changing.

Bashō wrote:

Shigururu ya   ta no arakabu no   kuromu hodo
Winter rain ya field ‘s stubble ‘s blacken up-to

Winter rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

We can see that the pattern of this is different.  “Winter rain” is both the setting and the subject.  First the writer presents it to us, so we can see and feel it, and then he expands on it it with a further qualification — “enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.”  It is a different approach, not the normal “standard” hokku with setting, subject and action, but it is very effective nonetheless.

In all of these hokku we see again that a hokku is essentially two parts presented (in English) in three lines.  In Sogi’s verse the two parts are:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping of duck wings.

In Bashō’s verse the two parts are:

Winter rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.

In both of these the shorter part functions as the setting, something very common in hokku.

Bashō’s verses were sometimes good, more often not so memorable.  We must remember that only a fraction of his hokku are really worthwhile.  He wrote another winter verse:

Fuyu no hi ya   bajō ni kōru    kagebōshi
Winter ‘s day ya horse on freezes  shadow

The winter day;
A shadow freezing
On the horse’s back.

We get what he was after, but it does not quite work.  What he really meant was that HE was freezing on the horse’s back, and when he transfers that sensory experience to a visual shadow, he is pulling us in two different directions, which does not work well in hokku.

We have to remember that Bashō was not any kind of Superman of hokku, he was just a writer who sometimes succeeded, sometimes not.  What Bashō did do was to live what he wrote about.

Kikaku, whose hokku are usually suspect, did write a rather good winter verse:

Kono kido ya   jō no sasarete   fuyu no tsuki
This brush-gate ya lock’s fixed   winter ‘s moon.

This brushwood gate,
Locked up tight;
The winter moon.

We feel the motionlessness, the stillness, the un-move-able-ness of the cold of winter, and the white light of the moon only adds to the chill.  Blyth translated the second line as “Is bolted and barred,” which not only emphasizes the effect but is also euphonic.

And last, for today, a verse by Tantan:

Hatsuyuki ya   nami no todakanu   iwa no ue
First-snow ya wave ‘s reach-not     rock ‘s on

We have to rearrange the elements to make it come out right in English:

On a rock
The waves cannot reach —
The first snow.

It is not a high rock, but just enough above the rough water so that the waves cannot wash away the first snow that has fallen upon the blackish mass of stone.

After reading these hokku, you will probably feel like putting on a sweater or heating a nice warm cup of herbal tea!  But I hope you will also pay attention to how each of these verses manages (or fails, in one case) to let Nature speak.





On setting out on a journey, Bashō wrote:

Tabibito to   waga na yobaren   hatsushigure
Traveler to my      name shall-be   first-winter-rain

Shall be my name;
The first rain of winter.

If that last line looks a bit long in comparison to the others, that is because Japanese translated into English does not always take up the same relative amounts of space.  Old hokku were in a pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units generally, but in spite of that they really fall into two parts.

We can see that in Bashō’s hokku:

“Traveler” shall be my name;
The first rain of winter.

We could write hokku that way — in two lines — but generally three lines are more aesthetically pleasing.

The setting of the hokku is the third line, “The first rain of winter.”  That is the context in which Bashō sets forth as a traveller.

We are travelers through life — through time — but when one reads the life of Bashō, one has the feeling that he never realized the truth of the words of the Daodejing:

Without stepping outside one’s doors,
One can know what is happening in the world,
Without looking out of one’s windows,
One can see the Tao of heaven.

The farther one pursues knowledge,
The less one knows.
Therefore the Sage knows without running about,
Understands without seeing,
Accomplishes without doing.

(Lin Yutang translation)

In traveling one may accumulate knowledge, but knowledge is not the same as wisdom, not the same as insight.



The almost frantic desire of contemporary society to drop whatever is perceived as no longer fashionable in favor of whatever is new should hold no attraction for writers of hokku.  Such chronic dissatisfaction as just another manifestation of the illusion that abandoning what one has for what one does not have will make one happy.  And of course change for the sake of change is the very basis of our modern sick and wasteful consumer society, and a major cause of the rape of the natural environment and ultimately of climate change.

The book Blowing Zen (H. J. Kramer Inc., Tiburon, 2000), was written by a man who learned to play the shakuhachi in Japan — Ray Brooks.  A shakuhachi is a kind of bamboo flute.  At one point, being a novice student, he was playing shakuhachi outside in winter when an elderly Japanese woman passing by heard him practicing a piece called Haru no Umi — “The Spring Sea.”  Finally it was too much for her, and she stopped to correct him, saying “Dame! — Dame!” meaning “No good!  No good!”

She was not criticizing his playing, but rather the fact that he was playing the melody out of season.  That old lady had the perspective of hokku, which pays attention to such things and considers them important.

As I have said before, the aesthetics of all the contemplative arts are essentially the same, so it is not surprising that the old woman perceived the inappropriateness of a spring melody being played in winter.  It is like seeing a Christmas wreath on the Fourth of July — out of place, out of harmony with the season.

Modern haiku long ago abandoned this aesthetic, but in hokku I like to value and observe it, finding no reason to change simply for the sake of keeping up with the fashions of the moment in literature.  Not long ago, realistic painting was out of style and “old-fashioned.”  Now it is again very popular.  Things come into fashion and go out of style, but the essential aesthetics of the best hokku transcend fashion, being rooted in the spiritual aesthetic that gave birth to the contemplative arts.

Change is a part of the universe.  But the craze for the new simply because it is new is a sign of immaturity and instability.  The constant desire for something new and different that pervades modern culture is simply the symptom of a society that constantly tries to replace one distraction with another, but finds — like a drug addict — that the pleasure decreases with each experience.

In spite of its appreciation for the old, hokku is always open to what is new and fresh, because its subject matter is always in keeping with the present season, whatever that season may be.  Hokku excludes neither age nor youth, but sees both in relation to the constant change characteristic of existence.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden,


That is something  society in general has yet to learn, but it is very true.  Writing hokku is not about constantly being in fashion and up-to-date by the standards of others; instead it is about a fundamental transformation in the mind that allows us to perceive the world and our place in it — as a part of it — as constantly changing, yet ever fresh and new.




I see that some people read my site in Italian, in Spanish, in Czech, Russian, and other languages by using Internet software.  I wish that I could write as fluently in all those languages as in English, but I cannot.  And Internet translation software does not often translate what I write clearly or even correctly.  But I am very happy to see people trying to read what I write about hokku, in whatever way they can manage.

If you read my site with a translation program, feel free to write me a note.  I can read a number of languages, even though I may not be able to respond well (or even at all in some languages).

I teach hokku in English, but of course hokku can be written in any language, whether Russian or Finnish or Swahili or Norwegian or Czech or Italian, French, Welsh, Chinese, and all the rest.  So I am very happy to see people making the effort to understand hokku, even though trying to do it through translation software does not give very good results.

I remember that I was once testing an Internet translation program by using the title of a Bach chorale in German:  Mit Fried’ und Freud’ ich fahr’ dahin (“In Peace and Joy I Now Depart”).  The software translated the title completely incorrectly as “I am driving there with Fried and Freud.”

So I know when readers see a “translation” of my site in Russian or Italian, often there are words the program mistranslates or even cannot translate at all.  If I can do anything to help correct such “uncertain” places for readers in other languages, please feel free to ask by sending me a message posted as a comment.  I will try to do what I can.

Meanwhile, I welcome everyone of every language, and am very pleased that you take the time to try to read about hokku here.