Perhaps you remember my “Fall” hokku:

The river —
It flows out of and into
The fog.

Fog is very important to autumn hokku, and important to ink painting — one of the other contemplative arts — as well.  Fog both hides and reveals as it moves and changes.  I have always been fond of those wonderful old Chinese paintings of mountains emerging from fog.  Just as in hokku, what is seen — or mentioned — is made even more significant by what is not seen or mentioned.

Keep in mind that when three people read the same hokku, they will have three different experiences.  Yes, each will be focused on a river and the fog, but each will be different.  That is because on reading a hokku, each person draws from his or her own memory and experience to create the new experience.  So a thousand people reading the same hokku will have a thousand different experiences.

One must be careful not to make hokku too “poetic.”  Look at these two verses, the first exactly what a hokku should be, the second in hokku form but really too poetic for hokku:

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

It is a scene where on a clear day, one would easily see a river passing at the base of a steep hill.  But now there is a thick fog, and in it someone in the river boat and someone on the hill are trying to communicate by shouting through the fog that muffles all sounds.  The writer hears the shouting, but cannot clearly see either person, nor can he distinguish what it is that is being shouted.

In forming the hokku thus, Kitō conveys to us the “hiding and revealing” power of the fog.  We hear shouting, but do not understand the words in an autumn world where much is hidden by the fog.

Obviously this is a “question” hokku.  A question hokku derives its power from an asked, but always unanswered question.  What is being shouted in the dense fog?  It is that questioning feeling — that “not knowing” that is the whole point of a question hokku.  To answer it — even by saying we do not know what is being shouted — spoils the effect.

Perhaps you are familiar with the American composer Charles Ives.  One of his best-known works is titled The Unanswered Question.  It is an instrumental way of presenting the question of existence — and in Ives’ work, that question — as in hokku — is never answered.

Kitō’s hokku, then, does what hokku should do, but does not go beyond it.  By contrast, here is a verse by Buson.  You will recall that Buson was a painter, and he often strives for painterly effects in his hokku, which makes them a bit artificial.  It is worth remembering that Buson — not Bashō — was the favorite of Masaoka Shiki.   It was the “painter” aspect of Buson that Shiki liked, which contributed to Shiki’s notion that his new “haiku” should be a kind of illustration or sketch from life.  But let’s look now at Buson’s verse:

Morning fog–
A painting of people passing
In a dream.

It is really too intentionally beautiful for hokku, and is somewhat like an impressionist painting.

Literally, what Buson wrote was:

Asagiri ya   e ni kaku  yume no hito dōri
Morning-fog ya   picture in painted dream ‘s people pass

So if we moved things around a bit, we could translate it more literally as

Morning fog:
Painted in a picture —
Dream people passing.

Either way, however, it does what hokku should not do — it pulls our attention in two different directions by comparing one thing with another.  Instead of just telling us that people are passing in the morning fog, he goes beyond and tells us that it is like a picture of people passing in a dream — of dream-people passing.  Any time we have to use the word “like” to explain something in hokku, it is a warning sign.  Hokku should let things just be themselves, not be “like” this or “like” that.

To explain this further, let’s look at another Buson hokku in which he took things to a similar but even greater extreme:

Ichi gyō    no kari hayama ni   tsuki wo insu
One line   ‘s    wild-geese  foothills at  moon
wo seal

A line of wild geese;
Above the foothills,
The moon as seal.

It may not be readily obvious to someone not familiar with Chinese and Japanese painting, but what Basho is doing here is comparing — LIKE-ening–a line of wild geese flying in the night sky of autumn to a line of calligraphy — of writing — on a scroll.  And carrying the simile further, he then says that above the foothills, the moon is pressed as the seal.  In such a painting, there is generally a reddish-orange seal that is either the mark of the painter or the mark of an owner.  Such seals were often round (though sometimes square or rectangular or oval), and contained stylized Chinese characters.

So Buson is likening a passing line of wild geese on a moonlit autumn night to a vertical scroll on which there is a line of black writing, and he is likening the bright autumn moon above the foothills to the reddish-orange round seal mark of the painter.  He thus pulls the mind of the reader in two directions — one a real scene, the other the work of a calligrapher-painter.  Hokku, in my view, should not do this.  It leads, as I have said, not only to artificiality, but it also does not allow a thing to simply be what it is, to stand on its own merit and power.

Since I first posted this, someone has used part of what I wrote above on another site (, and has added this comment:

Coomler dislikes the poem for the same reasons that first attracted me to it. I don’t read the image as a “real scene” that is being compared to a painting. Like all good art, the poem is open. It could be describing the painting itself, or could be simply what it purports to be: wild geese at moonrise, realized in the artist/poet’s eye as a synthesis of art and experience. In other words, ekphrasis.

This is approaching hokku from the perspective of Western poetry, which in my view is an error.  It is not that “Coomler dislikes the poem,” but rather that Coomler dislikes it as hokku, for the reasons stated above.  However if one treats it as a Western poem (by approaching it from the perspective and conditioning of Western poetry), then it is perfectly fine.  Seen from that perspective, this verse by Buson is a literary conceit, meaning a literary comparison/likening of two quite different things.  But such cleverness — while perfectly acceptable as “poetry” — is not hokku at its best, which avoids cleverness.

Of course Westerners will often like such verses very much, because Western poetry is filled with simile (one thing likened to another) and metaphor (saying one thing is another).  A conceit is an extended metaphor.  We are accustomed to it this kind of thing, we recognize it, and we might mistakenly think it is just fine because to us it is common in poetry.  But hokku is not poetry as we understand it.  Instead, hokku should be a direct sensory experience — seeing, touching, tasting, smelling and hearing.  Hokku should not be an intellectual experience, and when we use simile or metaphor, we take hokku away from the concrete and into the realm of the abstract — the world of the mind and intellection, what we call “thinking” in hokku.  But hokku are experiencing, not thinking.

That does not mean Buson’s two verses are bad.  In their own way they are interesting for what they are.  It is just that what they are is not really what hokku should be or what hokku should do.  Fortunately, not all of Buson’s verses are like this, but when reading him, we somehow feel we can never really trust him to tell us the truth; he too often strives for an effect, and so Buson’s verses give us the same uncertain, untrustworthy feeling we get when looking at an exhibition of photos in which some have been altered by computer to enhance their effect.

For those curious about Buson’s original, here it is in transliteration, with a very literal translation:

ichi gyō no     kari ya hayama ni     tsuki wo insu
one-line ‘s   wild-geese ya  foothills at moon wo seal

Ichi gyō/ichigyō(一 ) calls to mind the vertically-written, single-line sayings — ichigyō mono –particularly Zen sayings — that were often painted on wall scrolls.


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