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.