Tomorrow is the Winter Solstice, in old tradition the time of the rebirth of the sun, the beginning of inner and outer change.

For almost fifteen years I have been teaching hokku on the Internet, trying to dig the muck out of a very old fountain that has long been silted over and hidden in the weeds.  In all this time I have known that if hokku were to return to the world, it would not be by my efforts alone.

It all has to do with the spirit of the times, the nature of people and what they are seeking.  To put it quite simply, if people are interested only in materialism and ego gratification, hokku will die out again, in spite of all my efforts.  It is only the few who open themselves up to their place in the universe who could keep it alive or possibly make it grow.  Those who forget about Nature and the changing seasons, living lives divorced from reality and spirituality, will not be interested in hokku to begin with.

My hope in continuing to teach is that others will learn hokku, and do what they can to keep the spring of hokku clear and flowing ever more freely.  If none are willing to do so, the spring will silt up again, weeds will cover it once more, and it will lie there unrecognized and unused, waiting for a change in the human spirit, if ever such a change is to come.

I can teach anyone how to write hokku, though to learn it takes time and effort.  I cannot, however, teach anyone to write good hokku.  That depends on the character of the individual, on inherent skill, and on how much that individual is willing to put into the learning process.  But I have always said that it is more important to live hokku than to write it.  The other side of that coin is that to write it, one must live it.

In a sense, this blog has been my Walden Pond.  What Thoreau says of his going to the pond can be said also of hokku:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Thoreau said,

By closing the eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit every where, which is still built on purely illusory foundations.

In the past I have pointed out numbers of illusions about hokku — how it was misunderstood, misperceived and misrepresented in the West from its first appearance here.  And how the modern haiku establishment misled the public about the nature and even the name of hokku in the 20th century — sometimes unintentionally, sometimes deliberately — a deception whose negative effects continue even today.

The situation for hokku at present is not bright, but neither is that for the world as a whole.  It is faced with environmental and economic disaster, as well as civilization-ending violence from radical religion and radical politics.  And quite simply, from human ignorance, greed, and materialism.

I look at the weakly-flowing spring of hokku that I have opened up in the past years, pointing it out to others and saying, “Here it is, but if you want it to continue to flow, you will have to clean out the muck and silt from time to time; and if you want it to flow even more freely, you will have to work to make it happen.”

So it is up to you, my readers.  If you work to increase your understanding of hokku, producing new verses and teaching others, and beginning to really live the life of hokku — the spring will continue to flow.  If you do not, then the spring will silt up again, the snows of winter will cover it, and as time passes, people will forget that it ever existed.



Michihiko, who lived in the time of Issa, wrote:

Kare-ashi ya             yuki no chirakutsuku   kaze no ato
Withered-reeds ya snow’s  flitting              wind ‘s after

Withered reeds;
The snow flutters down
After the wind.

The wind has ceased, and the snow flutters softly down over the withered reeds.

The setting is “withered reeds.”  The subject is “the snow.”  The action is “flutters down after the wind.”  So this is another standard hokku, consisting of setting, subject and action.

“Withered reeds” is in keeping with the deathly yin of winter.  And of course the snow is yin.  And the ceasing of the wind is also yin — the change from motion to stillness.  And in that stillness, over the withered reeds, the cold snow flutters downward — a yin direction.

Sōchō wrote:

Yuki akari    akaruki neya wa    mata samushi
Snow light    bright   bedroom wa moreover cold

The bedroom is bright
But cold!

The brightness comes from the snow outside, but it is a winter brightness, meaning very chilly. This shows us the relativity of Nature — how there are no absolutes in Yin and Yang, but rather one thing is yin in comparison to another.  Light is conventionally thought of as yang, but being the light of winter, it is very yin in comparison to the light of summer — so very cold!



Here is my periodic disclaimer:

I do not teach modern haiku, which, as it exists today, has virtually nothing to do with the old hokku written by Bashō, Onitsura, Gyōdai, Taigi, and all the others who wrote up until the end of the 19th century.  It is inaccurate, anachronistic, and a mistake to confuse hokku with haiku, and the latter term should never be used to describe the former.

I have nothing to do with the modern haiku community, its practices or its goals, which are very different from those of the old writers of hokku.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s look at another verse by Yaha.

Yesterday we discussed the significance of one thing versus many in hokku, and we looked at two verses, the latter by Yaha:

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening

Yaha also wrote:

Hitogoe no   yowa wo suguru   samusa kana
Person-voice ‘s night-half wo pass  cold  kana

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Yesterday I said that in hokku, one thing has more perceived significance than many things, and I used the “single” umbrella of Yaha in contrast to “many umbrellas” as an example.  Yet today there is this hokku in which I translate “people” and “voice” as a plural.

In hokku we must beware of rigid dogmatism.  Hokku reflects Nature, which is a living, changing thing, and our verses and our practice must be in keeping with that.

As I have said, Japanese had no distinction between plural and singular.  so when we see hitogoe (hito-koe), we could just as easily translate thus:

Someone’s voice
Passes at midnight;
The cold!

We must use common sense, however, combined with the aesthetics of hokku.  People generally do not wander about outside at midnight talking to themselves (well, they may in my city, but there are lots of strange people in cities!); further, the sense that there are at least two people passing outside, conversing in low tones, adds to the sense of contrast and solitude in the verse.  You will remember that Winter is a time of extremes, so verses that mix activity with passiveness, Yang with Yin, are particularly effective.

Having conversing people passing (Yang) outside at midnight (deep Yin), then, is effective precisely because of the contrast between the voices outside and the solitude of the writer and the time of night — and becoming, as readers, that person awake at midnight — listening to the voices passing by outside — we feel the cold all the more deeply in our solitude.



Yesterday we looked at this verse by Hokushi:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure

Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

In contrast, Yaha wrote:

Karakasa no    hitotsu sugiyuku   yuki no kure
Umbrella ‘s      one         passes-by  snow ‘s evening

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening.

This illustrates an important principle of hokku, related to its aspect of poverty.  The less we present in a hokku, the stronger the effect.  By “effect” we mean that all-important feeling of significance.  One umbrella passing on a snowy evening has more perceived significance than many umbrellas.  It has to do with the focus of attention, which is dispersed among many similar things in one case, but focused on a single thing in the second.  That is why in translating hokku, even though Japanese had no difference between singular and plural nouns, we nonetheless generally translate in the singular rather than the plural, except in the case of things that normally come in groups, such as clouds and raindrops.

To state the principle quite simply, one thing in hokku has a greater perceived significance than many things.  One can easily see that this relates to another principle of hokku, which is the avoidance of simile and metaphor.  Why?  Because they divide the attention between the “real” thing and the object with which it is being likened.  What underlies both of these — one thing instead of many, no metaphor or simile — is not dividing the attention of the reader.  The less divided the attention, the stronger the effect, the perceived significance, which is exactly what we see when looking at these two verses of Hokushi and Yaha.



We have seen that hokku avoids the use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my” unless it is awkward to do so.  That means there is no emphasis on the “I” as ego, but that does not mean those words are never used in hokku.  They are used when they are needed and when it fits the aesthetics of hokku.

We find such a use in this winter hokku by Chora:

Kaze no yuki   tatazumu ware wo   furimeguru
Wind ‘s  snow  standing me wo

The windy snow,
Blowing about me
As I stand.

In English that has both “me” and “I,” but they are used in keeping with the spirit of hokku.  Chora writes about himself the same way he would write about the snow blowing about a rock or a tree — objectively.

Hokushi wrote a verse that is very satisfying, yet it applies far more to Japan than to America:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure
Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

One sees the paper umbrellas held up as the snow falls delicately onto and around them — a very Japanese scene.  But in the United States, people use umbrellas when it rains, not when it snows.  Somehow it just does not seem right to Americans to obstruct the falling snow with an umbrella as one walks through it.

Old hands here will recognize the simple structure of this verse, a standard hokku having setting (the snowy evening), subject (many umbrellas) and action (passing by).  It is not only one of the best forms for those beginning to learn hokku, but also one of the best forms no matter how advanced one happens to be.



I have already said that Issa’s hokku reflect a scarred and sad childhood.  That is why he tended to project his emotions onto other creatures and things:

Asabare ni   pachipachi sumi no   kigen kana
Morning-clear at pop-pop charcoal ‘s good-spirits kana

This bright morning,
Pop! pop! goes the charcoal
In good spirits.

This reminds one immediately of Hans Christian Andersen, who similarly had a difficult childhood and constantly projected human thoughts and emotions onto creatures and things. “Crick! Crack! said the furniture” — that sort of thing.

This is a very old way of behaving, in which what is unconscious in a human, instead of being made conscious, is projected onto the outside world.  Do you remember childhood pictures in which the sun and moon have human faces, flowers have voices, and so on?  It is the same kind of attitude.

Personally, I do not like it in hokku.  I prefer things as they are, free of the projections of the writer.  That demands a more mature attitude from the reader.

In Issa’s verse, it is not the charcoal that is in good spirits; it is Issa.  So very often Issa is not really writing about sparrows or snails or other things — he is writing about Issa, projected onto those things.  That is why much of his verse is so unsatisfactory as hokku, though it greatly appeals to sentimentalists.

Bashō wrote:

Kinbyōbu  matsu no furubi ya   fuyugomori
Gold-screen pine ‘s   aging ya winter-seclusion

The pine
On the golden screen ages;
Winter seclusion.

“Winter seclusion” was a common topic in old winter hokku.  It is remaining inside for long periods of time because of the inhospitable weather outside.  It is somewhat like the old farm families in the United States being snowbound.  With no place to go and very little to do, one turns inward.

That is what happened to Bashō.  As the minutes and hours passed, he looked at an old gold-leafed screen on which a pine tree was cleverly painted, and in the slow passage of time he felt the pine on the screen aging along with everything else, though it was painted and not living.  That is basic Buddhism.  Everything passes, everything changes, nothing remains forever, whether a pine painted on a screen, a pine growing on a rocky crag, or even the crag upon which it grows.  Bashō is experiencing the transience that is so much a part of hokku.



We all know that Shiki was the individual who began the revisionism that has proved so disastrous for hokku — so damaging, in fact, that in the 20th century most people did not even realize that Bashō and all the others up to Shiki wrote hokku, not haiku, let alone having any inkling of the aesthetic principles necessary for the reading and writing of hokku.

And keep in mind, revisionist though he was, Shiki was still on the conservative end of things, if we look at the history of haiku overall.  Most haiku written today have as little in common with what Shiki called haiku as they do with hokku, and are in fact quite new kinds of verse.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the trouble.  Shiki had a predilection for art, which is no doubt what attracted him so to Buson; Buson was the most painterly of hokku writers, and his verses often show his “artistic” intent, usually not for the better.  Then too, Shiki was influenced by Western open-air painting, and he came up with the notion that a “haiku” — his revisionist version of hokku — should be a kind of nature sketch in words.

We can see that in one of his “winter” verses (remember that Shiki, unlike most Western haiku enthusiasts, still held season to be an essential element):

Akaki mi    hitotsu koborenu   shimo no niwa
Red   berry   single  fallen         frost    ‘s    garden

A red berry,
Spilled on the frost
Of the garden.

I often talk about how Shiki’s verse tends toward mere illustration, and this is an excellent example.  We could, in fact, turn it into a block print using only two kinds of ink — red and white.  A red berry seen against the white frost background.  One could make it of construction paper, a red dot on a white page.

It is, in a way, an experience abstracted from nature.  It reminds one inevitably of William Carlos Williams’

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Aside from the extraneous “so much depends upon,” that too is essentially just a color assemblage, though slightly more advanced than that of Shiki.

Shiki’s verse is a tiny, circular spot of bright red set on a field of white.  It could be simply an abstract painting  — “Red Dot on White Field.”  It has its virtues for what it is, but it is a step away from what hokku should be.

Shiki takes the first step toward abstraction by not telling us what kind of berry it was.  That leaves us with the spot of red.  Thoreau would not have done such a thing.  To Thoreau a berry was not a mere spot of red; it was a winterberry, or perhaps a tree cranberry, or some other specific thing.  To Thoreau, as for hokku in general, Nature was not in the abstraction but in the specific particular.  So in hokku, when we write about a red berry, we want to know specifically what kind of berry, because then it will immediately appear before our inner vision as itself, not as an abstraction.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki    karasu mo yuki no    ashita kana
Usually hateful  crow    too  snow ‘s    morning kana

Usually hateful,
The crow too
This snowy mornin

That is a bit cryptic in English, because in Japanese one was expected to “intuit” what the writer meant, which was simply

The usually hateful crow is also something pleasant this snowy morning.

And of course one was to know automatically the reason for this, which is that the crow, being so black, looks quite pleasant when seen against the pure white background of snow.

Now we can see that Bashō’s hokku too would make an interesting block print — simply a black crow against a white background — but Bashō has not abstracted the crow into a generic black bird, as Shiki has done with the berry, and of course with the crow there is life; one sees it stalking about in the cold whiteness, turning its head.

Such differences seem small, but it is by failing to understand such things that one fails to grasp the essential nature of hokku as different from other kinds of verse, including much of haiku.



Hashin wrote a winter hokku that has always been a favorite:

Ten mo chi mo    nashi ni yuki no     furishikiri
Sky too  earth too    are-not at snow ‘s    falling-ceaselessly

No sky, no earth;
The ceaseless falling
Of snow.

Or we could translate it like this:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

The latter inserts a word (as does Blyth) not found in the original — “only,” but it conveys the meaning well and is very euphonic.

Rather literally, the verse reads:

With no heaven and earth being, snow falls ceaselessly.

That means the writer sees no sky, no earth, only snow falling ceaselessly all around.  Looking up there is falling snow; looking down there is falling snow.  The writer is in a falling-snow universe where sky and earth have disappeared.  This is a a remarkably effective, wintry verse.

Jōso wrote a hokku about sleet.  Sleet traditionally is a mixture of snow and snow that has melted into rain.  It is not the “ice pellets” of American weathermen, which ordinarily we would just call frozen rain.  Jōso’s verse is impossible to translate literally into English, and we must look at it to see why:

Sabishisa no  soko     nukete   furu mizore kana
loneliness ‘s  bottom  fallen-out  falling sleet kana

Soko nukete, “bottom fallen out”  is an expression used in Zen of a moment of enlightenment.  Imagine a bucket filled with water.  Suddenly, the bottom of the bucket gives way, and all the water falls out.  That is the moment when customary conceptions and illusions and attachments, the fixed ways of seeing the world, suddenly fall away and there is direct perception with no distinction between perceiver and perceived, no intellection obstructing.

But “bottom fallen out” means nothing in the context of the rest of this hokku if translated into English, so we must find some other way of transmitting its effect.  This is problematic, because simply using a single word like “profound” leaves us with a rather skimpy attempt at hokku:

Profound loneliness;
Sleet falling.

Not only is that too short, it is also remarkably bland, so we shall have to do better.

Let’s look at how Blyth translated it:

Sleet falling:
Fathomless, infinite

A very brave attempt!   But to really understand what Jōsō is saying, we have to turn to the principles of hokku.  Regular readers here will recall that hokku do not use metaphors. You will sometimes find modern haiku writers saying they do, but that is simply because they know nothing about hokku aesthetics, and misinterpret what they are seeing.  Instead, hokku use the more subtle technique of mutual reflection, in which the condition or character of one thing is reflected in the condition or character of another.  This too must not be misunderstood, however.

If we speak, for example, of someone washing daikon radishes in winter, we find the “yin” nature of winter reflected in the whiteness of the radishes and the cold water.  This does not mean either radish or water is a metaphor for winter or a symbol of winter.  It means instead that the character of winter is manifested both in the whiteness of the radishes and the coldness of the water.  No one of the elements is greater or lesser than the other.  The daikon radish is winter, winter is the daikon radish.  The cold water is winter, winter is the cold water.  The coldness of the water is the whiteness of the radish.  The whiteness of the radish is the coldness of the water.  Each is reflected in the other.

Knowing this, we can see what Blyth intended in his translation.  It is not merely that sleet is falling, and this makes the writer very lonely.  Instead it is that there is infinite, bottomless loneliness in the writer; and outside there is the falling of the cold sleet.  We see the character of the the infinite, bottomless loneliness in the falling sleet, and we see the falling sleet in the infinite, bottomless loneliness.

It is a mistake, therefore, to understand this verse as meaning simply that Jōso is profoundly lonely, and sleet is falling through this loneliness.  Instead, what it means is that the inner state of the writer is reflected in the outer falling of the sleet, and the outer falling of the sleet is reflected in the inner state of the writer.  They are simultanously the same and yet different, they are simultaneously inside and outside and yet there is no inside or outside.  All are one experience.

One can see there is more to this verse than is apparent to someone who does not understand the aesthetics of hokku.  Personally, I would change Blyth’s translation slightly, like this:

Sleet falling;
Fathomless, infinite

One can be alone without being lonely.  And one can be lonely without being alone.  But aloneness has a somewhat different significance, because it takes away the aspect of needing or desiring another presence.  Instead it accepts the fact of being alone for what it is, without emotional protest.  That pure aloneness is reflected in the falling of the sleet, and the falling of the sleet is reflected in that bottomless aloneness.

We should understand Jōsō’s verse, then, not as an expression of lonely, over-emotional “needyness,” but rather as a manifestation of the mind from which all accumulated concepts and desires have dropped away.

We see this concept reflected in a verse on one of the block prints of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.  It shows the female hokku writer Chiyo-ni.  The bottom has fallen out of her bucket, which lies on the ground with all the water that had been contained in it flowing away.  A full moon is in the sky.  The verse ends by telling us that with the water no longer in the the bucket, tsuki mo yadorazu — the moon has no place to dwell.

You will recall that I often speak of the hokku writer as one who must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may be reflected in the clear mirror of the mind.  This verse about Chiyo-ni goes beyond that to the stage reached by the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.

Those of you who know the traditional history of Zen will recall that centuries ago, the master of a monastery in China, the Fifth Patriarch, said that he would pass his office on to whoever in the monastery showed the deepest understanding of “Ch’an,” which is the Chinese pronunciation of what the Japanese call “Zen.”  The most respected student wrote a verse by night — a gatha — where it would be seen by all.  In it he said that the mind is a clear mirror, and that one should be careful to wipe it all the time so that it may be free of dust.  That is quite true, and it is true of hokku as well.

But there was a rather shabby fellow working in the kitchen, an illiterate nobody named Hui Neng.  When someone read to him what the verse of the chief disciple said, he composed his own verse, and had someone write and post it for him by night, out where all could see it.

The next morning the monks were shocked to read a verse that seemed to directly contradict the first verse.  In it was said that there never was a clear mirror, and that from the beginning not one thing exists, so where is there dust to cling to such an illusory mirror?

That is what we see in Chiyo-ni and her bucket with its bottom fallen out.



Hokku with a psychological element often appear among those of Issa, who wrote near the beginning of the 19th century.  Issa was a psychologically-scarred individual who tended to interpret much of what he saw in terms of the sorrow he endured both as a child and in later life.  Westerners often find him appealing because this “psychological” quirk of his in hokku is something with which they are already familiar with from Western poetry, and also certain of his verses are sometimes perceived by them as “cute” for the same reason.  The result is generally that they overlook what is best in Issa, and go instead for what is worst, magnifying it in their own verses written in imitation of him.

I learned early on as a teacher of hokku that when students turned in verses in which an animal, an insect, or a bird was addressed directly in the verse, that student had taken on one of the quirks of Issa, thinking it somehow worthy of imitation.  I came to call this the “talk to the animals” syndrome, because it was so common among new students, and began to warning against it before it appeared in their work, which inevitably it would if they were not cautioned.

That does not, of course, mean that all of Issa’s hokku are bad hokku, though many of them do tend to lead students off in the wrong direction, into subjectivity rather than objectivity.  That is because people tend all too quickly to perceive something new in terms of what they already know, which is an excellent way to completely misunderstand.  That is precisely why the “haiku” writers of the mid-20th century up to the present were led astray by misperceiving hokku in terms of what they already were familiar with in Western poetry.  The early writers of haiku in English thus completely misunderstood the old hokku, and that misunderstanding gave rise to modern haiku in English — a whole verse category created from mistaken notions, a category that still exists today, not as a continuation of the old hokku but rather as an ersatz replacement created by Westerners who failed to see the aesthetic principles underlying hokku.

Let’s examine a winter verse of Issa:

Yuki chiru ya   kinō wa mienu   shakuya fuda
Snow falls ya yesterday wa unseen   rent-house sign

Falling snow;
A “For Rent” sign
Not seen yesterday.

Remember always that the real subject of every hokku is the season in which it is written.  What is said in a verse must be understood in that context.  That is why I take so much time explaining the “character” of a season, and in talking about Yin and Yang.

Winter, as I have said, is the season of want, of deprivation in Nature, of hardship.  It is the time when life — when simply surviving — becomes the most difficult.  It is the most yin time of the year, the time of cold and silence and stillness.  Therefore, when we read a verse such as this, we see it as a manifestation of those characteristics.

Falling snow;
A “For Rent” sign
Not seen yesterday.

We know this is not for happy reasons.  It means something difficult.  Either someone has had to move because they cannot pay, or someone has had to go elsewhere to find work, or perhaps even someone has died.  These are all possibilities in keeping with the character of the season, but note that none of them are specified in the verse.  That means we are just to get the overall feeling of the unexplained absence of the old tenant or tenants; it is precisely this absence which gives us the “feeling” key to the verse — that and the falling snow.

We see from this that hokku are not intended to tell a story. Instead, hokku simply give us those elements that arouse certain sensations and feelings in us, in most cases without specifying what those feelings are or should be.  Because we are human, they just naturally arise in us when we are presented with a certain thing-event

So when we read this verse, we feel the coldness and austerity of the falling snow; we see the “For Rent” sign and recognize the absence — the emptiness — within the house or apartment.  A question arises within us about what happened to the people or persons formerly living there, but it goes unanswered, and that questioning feeling remains as part of the atmosphere of the verse.

All of this expresses the character of the season of winter.  That is the essence of this hokku

I hope that new readers here are beginning to realize why an understanding of the aesthetic principles of hokku is so important — in fact critically important — to both reading and writing them.  It is because these principles were not known or understood by those who first began writing in the West in attempted imitation of hokku that modern haiku arose as a misperception and a misunderstanding of hokku.  When one does not understand the principles underlying a verse form, it is not possible to write that verse form.

To get back to real hokku then, one must know precisely those things that the early writers of haiku in English and in other European languages did not know or even notice — the aesthetic principles that are the basis of hokku.  And very important among these is the fact that a hokku expresses a season through a particular thing-event that manifests the character of that season, as we see in

this verse by Issa.



Winter, as I have written earlier, is the most austere season of the year.  Because of that, it is a time when contrasts have great significance — warmth amid cold, food amid hunger, shelter amid none, movement amid stillness, light amid darkness, sound amid silence.

Such contrast is at the root of  the famous line from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

“…a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

That is not just the Yuletide season; it is winter.  That is why the joy of the holidays has such great significance against the background of winter.  I do not think that those who celebrate the great Midwinter Festival — call it Yule or call it Christmas or something else — in countries where the air is warm and there is plenty and abundance in Nature in the month of December, can ever really feel or express the great significance that the holiday has in places where the month is filled with cold, with frost, with snow and ice.

That is because it is the great contrast with the cold and scarcity that gives Yuletide its particular significance —

“… a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that if one celebrates Yule, the “non-Christian” aspect of the holiday, one must forget about everything associated with Christmas.  There are even those who feel that people who call the holiday Christmas should not be allowed to wish others who may not call it by the same name “Merry Christmas.”  The world is becoming too bound by such “politically-correct” rules.

My feeling is that such an attitude is quite contrary to the spirit of the season.  As I have said, I celebrate the holiday as Great Yule, the Midwinter Festival, the Winter Solstice, but when someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” I wish the same back to them, because underneath it all we are celebrating the same thing:  The season when the light is reborn out of the darkness of winter, the season of hope and joy and of realizing our common humanity.  To Christians this is expressed in the birth of a miraculous, bright infant who brings peace and joy to the world in the midst of winter.  That is essentially the same as for those who celebrate Yule, the time when the days have reached their shortest, when darkness has spread to its greatest length, and then suddenly at the Solstice there is a change, and once again light returns with the promise of another eventual spring.  And of course there is even more to it than that, feelings and experiences that touch the deepest parts of our nature.

So when I see a nativity scene, I see a symbol.  Yes, for some people it can mean a narrow, dogmatic, exclusive attitude, but it should not mean that for us.  The practice of hokku goes beyond a dogmatic attitude toward life.  That is why I always emphasize that the spirituality of hokku is a non-dogmatic spirituality.  It goes beyond beliefs and relies on personal experience.

So when, at the end of A Christmas Carol, we find the words of Tiny Tim repeated,

God Bless Us, Every One!

we need not be literal theists to share in the spirit of that exclamation.  We may understand the term “God” to mean numerous different things, and many of us may not use that term at all for what we understand the phrase to mean.  But we can certainly share in the spirit of wishing well to all, even while knowing that we live in a world filled with illness and want and violence and death.  Yuletide takes us — at least for a time — beyond that to a deeper realm in which, as Julian of Norwich wrote,

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

And there is something helpful and healing in just having the thought in one’s mind, whether we put it in the words of Tiny Tim or in that of Buddhism:

May all beings be happy; may all beings be peaceful; may all beings be liberated.

That is the sentiment at the deepest level of the holiday, whether one calls it Yuletide or Christmas or simply the Winter Solstice.  However we may keep it and whatever we may call it, such a sentiment, if it penetrates deeply into our being, turns us into individuals more like Scrooge, who after his time “among the spirits” became one of whom it was said,

… that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

We should never confuse this keeping of the festival well with commercialism, though of course that is what it has become in our time, when people have lost touch with the deeper things of life.  It is up to us to find within ourselves what it means to keep the Yuletide season well.  It is a part of our spiritual journey.



Yesterday we discussed emotion in hokku, and how it is better not to present it openly but rather indirectly, through the objective elements of a hokku.

There are certain old hokku, however, where direct mention of an emotion is found, for example in Rōka’s

Kanashisa ya   shigure ni somaru   haka no moji
Sadness     ya winter-rain at/by dyes    gravestone ‘s written-characters

We may translate as:

Winter rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

Even though the emotion “sadness” is stated directly, this is a far more reserved and objective verse overall than the overlong and overdramatic verse of Bashō,

A night of  the sound of oars striking waves,
And of freezing bowels;

What do we learn from all this?  That in hokku emotion should either be indicated by use of certain objective elements in a hokku, or else it should simply be stated directly and objectively, simply and undramatically, as in Rōka’s hokku — which is far better as hokku than the awkward example of Bashō given here.

One further thing to notice in Rōka’s verse.  We talk much about Yin and Yang here, because they are important to the aesthetics of hokku.  You will remember that winter is the most yin season, and that water is yin as well, as are cold and darkness as opposed to light.  Look again at Rōka’s hokku:

Winter rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

The winter rain, the darkening of the letters, both of these are yin and in harmony with one another, as is the lifelessness of the tombstone.  It is this overwhelming yin effect that contributes to the sadness.



In the last posting, we saw a hokku into which Bashō put too much overt emotion, which spoiled it.  How should emotion be expressed in hokku?  Indirectly, as in this verse by Issa:

Hitōri to    chōmen ni tsuku    yosamu kana
One-person   register in marks   night cold kana

He notes in the register;
The cold night.

Notice that there is no overt mention at all of emotion, and yet the verse evokes a certain feeling in us as we read it.  That is because the fact that the fellow registering at the inn is single — alone — is reflected in the cold of night.  The cold emphasizes his aloneness, just as his aloneness emphasizes the cold.

This verse teaches us that emotion in hokku is evoked by what it includes, not by stating it openly.  When stated openly — which some writers of hokku attempted from time to time — it usually fails by saying too much and saying it too obviously.

If there is a flaw in Issa’s verse, it is that he focuses on the personal a bit too much.  It reminds us of the “lonely” paintings of William Hopper.  Issa does not exceed the bounds of hokku here, and one comes to expect his verses to be more personal than those of other writers.  Nonetheless, in this tendency we find both the popularity of Issa and his weakness.



As I have said before, only a fraction of the hokku of Bashō are worthwhile, roughly about a fifth of them or less.  This verse is not one of his best:

Ro no koe nami o utte   harawata koru   yo ya   namida
oar ‘s voice waves 0 strike bowels freeze night ya tears

First of all, the verse is awkwardly long in Japanese and even worse in English.  Second, it sounds too literary, as though Bashō had been reading old Chinese verses (which of course were part of his literary background).  Third, it is a bit too dramatic for hokku, which again relates to its literary appearance.

Putting it into English is a bit awkward because of its length, and one has to move elements about, but what it means is essentially

A sound-of-oars-striking-waves-freezing-bowels night; tears.

We could attempt to put it into more normal English as perhaps

A night of  the sound of oars striking waves,
And of freezing bowels;

Visually it is really unbalanced and no matter how one translates it, it is still unsatisfactory as a hokku.  We could try to improve it, but inevitably the addition of “tears” would spoil it by making it too emotional for good hokku.  Hokku are not and should not be about emotions; they are about sensory experience.  Perhaps that sensory experience might bring tears, but to say so goes too far, and takes us back into the realm of Chinese lyric poetry — a kind of devolution of hokku — in spite of the fact that Bashō, as in this verse, sometimes attempted it.  So Bashō here says too much both by using too many words and by adding emotional excess.

It should be a lesson to us neither to make hokku awkwardly long nor too obviously emotional.



December has begun, and with it has come a deeper cold in my region.  The next few nights are expected to be at or below freezing.

Taigi wrote a hokku expressive of such growing cold:

Tsumetasa ni   hōki sutekeri   matsu no shita
nail-pain at      broom left        pine   ‘s    under

The “nail-pain” of which Taigi speaks is the pain one feels in one’s fingernails when the fingers become very cold.  So what Taigi is saying is that he went out to sweep up the fallen leaves, but quickly found it so cold that the ends of his fingers began to hurt, and so he abandoned his broom beneath the pine tree, and went quickly back indoors.

This is a difficult thing to translate literally into English and still have it sound natural, so we will have to approximate, perhaps something like,

My fingers freezing,
The broom is left
Beneath the pine tree.

The verse expresses well that transitional time  from autumn to winter, when one has not yet realized how cold it has become.  Going out to sweep up the leaves left by autumn, we find that the cold of winter has unexpectedly come, and it has come so strongly that it forces us to abandon our broom and hurriedly return inside — where it is warmer.

Structurally this verse is simple:

Setting:  My fingers freezing
Subject:  The broom
Action:  Is left beneath the pine tree

It is important to remember that the setting of a hokku is not limited just to the wider physical environment.  It may also be a condition in or under which something takes place, and in this verse that condition is “My fingers freezing.”  In English we cannot just say “My fingers hurting,” because the reader will not know why they are hurting, so we must be more explicit and make clear that they are hurting from the cold.

Keep in mind that the point of what we do here — of talking about and translating old Japanese hokku — is just to help you to learn how to write hokku in English, or in whatever your native language happens to be.  Old hokku are enjoyable to read, but if we do not write new hokku as well, the tradition will die out.  So the point of discussing what the old Japanese hokku writers did and how they did it is to show visitors to this site how to continue the hokku tradition in modern times, in modern languages.  It does not matter if that language is English or Russian or Norwegian or Welsh, or any other language.  One can write real hokku in it if one understands the aesthetics and underlying principles and techniques.