Readers may have noticed that even though I teach the old “haikai” kind of hokku, I nonetheless have very little to say about the practice of linked verse (renga).  That is because it has never interested me.  In fact there are very, very few whom it does still interest.

My personal opinion — and it is only that — is that hokku today are better written individually or in the context of a journal than in the old style of linked verse.  One might better work in a hokku series, joining a number of related hokku together.  It is much simpler, and for Westerners, I think, much more rewarding and appropriate.

There are ways of writing linked verse in English, though I advocate none that are complicated.  That enables one to still compose “group” verse, as the old writers of hokku enjoyed doing, but nonetheless I do not think that Westerners find such group verse particularly appropriate to their psychology.  We enjoy it about as little as we enjoy group authorship of a novel.  So my conclusion from all this is that if you like writing hokku with others in a linked verse form, feel free to do so; and if you do not, then you may write hokku in the context of a daily journal, or a travel journal, or as a series of related verses, or as individual verses.  That liberality enables us to keep up the wider practice of haikai, though it is by no means the complex and time-consuming matter it was in the time of Bashō.  But keep in mind that teaching complex linked verse to merchants and tradesmen, etc., was how Bashō made his living.  One would be hard put to make a living at such an occupation today!  My feeling is that it is probably just as well, because it avoids commercializing hokku — and not commercializing is more appropriate to the spiritual nature of the kind of hokku I teach.

My advice to the individual writer is to keep the traditions of the old hokku that are important to the preservation of its character, but when it comes to its context — the wider practice of haikai — fit that to your lifestyle and personal preferences.  If you are a social person, you may wish it to be a group activity; if you are more a solitary, you will prefer a more “one-person” context and practice.

It is worth keeping in mind that the old and complex linked verse has virtually died out.  Almost no one reads it today.  But people all over the world still read the hokku of Onitsura and Bashō and all the other related writers up to the end of the 19th century.

Onitsura once wrote of what is temporary in verse and what is ageless.  Hokku has something in it that is ageless.  That does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  In fact hokku today appeals only to those who realize the importance of Nature in our lives — that we HAVE no lives without Nature, of which we are a part.  But human cultures rise and fall.  Nature remains, however we may abuse it to our own detriment.




Issa wrote:

Waga kado e    shiranande hairu    kawazu kana
My       gate   e unknowing coming-in  frog     kana

My gate unaware —
A frog.

Six words.

The whole point of the verse lies in the word “unaware.”

Our world is a “people” world in which frogs are found.  A frog’s world is a frog world in which people are found.

It makes one wonder of what we are unaware.

Notice the difference between this “frog” verse and the famous one by Bashō:  In Issa’s verse, there is an observer (indicated by “my gate”) and an observed (the entering frog).  In Bashō’s verse, however, there is only

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

There is no writer-frog separation.  One could say there is no writer-old pond-frog separation.  The subject (the writer) has disappeared, has become the object (that written about), so that a “twoness” becomes a oneness.



One of the great differences between hokku and modern haiku is found in subject matter.  In modern haiku one finds verses about all the things that hokku, for one reason or another, rejected.  I say “for one reason or another,” but actually there are two principal reasons.

First, hokku avoids topics that tend to disturb or obsess the mind.  That of course means romance and sex and violence.  The omission of such things comes from the spiritual origins of hokku in Mahayana Buddhism.   If we think of hokku as one of the contemplative arts — which it is — then it becomes readily obvious why these things are not used.

Second, hokku avoids modern technology.  It is very common for those in the modern haiku community to think that this is because such technology did not exist for the greater part of the history of hokku, but that is incorrect.  Hokku avoids technology because the real subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  Technology tends to take us away from Nature, and the farther we go in that direction, the farther from hokku we are.

That is why those in modern haiku who say “If Bashō were alive today he would write verses about texting and iPods and jets and freeways” (I cannot tell you how often I have heard that in one form or another) are simply exhibiting their ignorance of the fundamental aesthetics of the hokku.

It is not hard to see when and why technology began to be admitted to Japanese verse.  It happened near the end of the 19th century.  We can blame it on Shiki, who nonetheless did hold to the traditional standards in theory — that a verse should not be just about technology.  Nonetheless some of Shiki’s verses go a bit too far in admitting technology, and haiku (not hokku) writers who came after him saw that as license to go all the way.  That is why in modern haiku one may find a verse about nothing more than an elevator opening and closing.  That is very far from hokku, but often characteristic of modern haiku.

A few days ago we looked at the last stanza of a poem by Edward Shanks (one of the “Georgian” poets of England) called “A Night-Piece.”  An earlier stanza in that verse exhibits the kind of transition in English verse that we find also when Shiki began writing borderline verses:

All’s quiet in the wood, but, far away,
Down the hillside and out across the plain,
Moves, with long trail of white that marks its way,
——The softly panting train.

We see the gently puffing steam engine moving across the valley far away, though we are standing surrounded by Nature.  Its puffing is only gentle because it is distant.  Shiki, however, brought it much too close when he wrote a verse about smoke from a passing train and then draws our attention to “the young leaves.”  This is really too much for hokku.  Technology is beginning to overwhelm Nature.

The general rule of thumb in hokku is that Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature must always be the chief focus of a verse.  We of course often find the presence of human artifacts in hokku, but they are generally “pre-Industrial Revolution” kinds of things, like pots and and kites and wagons, things that do not interfere with our perception of Nature.  To use anything else in hokku requires both skill and a thorough understanding of its aesthetics, and is generally best avoided by both beginning and advanced students.

We must not make the childish mistake of thinking in “either-or” terms.  “Either I must write about modern technology in hokku or I cannot write about it at all.”  Again we must keep in mind the adage, “the right tool for the right job.”  There are many kinds of verse in which one may freely write about modern technology.  Hokku just does not happen to be one of them, because it has, and has always had, an entirely different purpose.



We have seen how to begin working with models in hokku, using the method of substitution.  It is important to keep in mind,however, that this is only a beginning.  It will enable one to follow the form and structure of hokku, but that means little if one does not understand the aesthetic basis.

That is why I talk about the principles of poverty, simplicity, transience, etc. that one finds in hokku.  Unlike modern haiku, hokku has a particular aesthetic approach to the composition of verses.  The aesthetics of hokku are generally those held in common with the other meditative arts in Japan such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, ink painting, gardening, etc.  Unlike the aesthetics of Western art, in Japan these practices had the “same flavor,” and if one understood the essence of one, one understood the essence of them all.

We must keep in mind, therefore, that the aesthetics of hokku are critical to writing it, and that without an understanding of those aesthetics, knowledge of structure alone is inadequate.  The student must learn both.  Of the two, structural understanding comes more quickly.  The aesthetics of hokku must be absorbed over time.

Otsuji wrote:

Spring rain;
Seen between the trees —
A path to the sea.

It is a simple verse, plain but effective.  as Blyth says of it, “There is something pleasant and lasting about poems that do not try the reader, that do not pander to popular taste.”



Edward Richard Burton Shanks wrote a poem titled “A Night-Piece” in the “Georgian” period of English poetry (1910-1936) — a work a bit overlong that ends with these words:

Again . . . again! The faint sounds rise and fail.
So far the enchanted tree, the song so low . . .
A drowsy thrush? A waking nightingale?
——Silence. We do not know.

That is often the way of poetry.  It says too much.  It speaks when silence is more appropriate and more significant.  It does not know when and where to stop.

The most important part of the last stanza is this:

A drowsy thrush? A waking nightingale?

But then the poet spoils it all by saying

——Silence. We do not know.

Hokku, in one of its frequent patterns, does not make that mistake.  I am speaking of the “question” hokku, the essence of which is to ask a question that not only remains unanswered but should not and must not be answered.  That is because the whole point of a question hokku is the feeling one gets from not knowing, “The Unanswered Question,” as the American composer Charles Ives titled one of his works.

The question hokku avoids the finality of knowing.  Knowing ends a multitude of possibilities.

Bashō wrote one of the best-known question hokku:

Hana no kumo   kane wa ueno ka asakusa ka
Blossom ‘s cloud  bell wa Ueno ?  Asakusa ?

A cloud of blossoms;
Is the bell Ueno?
Is it Asakusa?

The first line “A cloud of blossoms” gives us the wider setting of the verse.  It is spring, and cherry blossoms are everywhere.  Through this cloud of blossoms comes the deep tone of a sounding bell.  Where does it come from?  One cannot tell.  Is it from a temple at Ueno?  Or one at Asakusa?

To tell us would spoil the verse completely, would ruin its point, which is just that feeling of not knowing.

We could take Shanks’ lines and make them into a proper hokku:

The distant wood;
A drowsy thrush?
A waking nightingale?

One does not, of course, need a question on each of two lines, as in Bashō and in our reworked Shanks.  One need only be sure that the question mark is placed so as to leave the reader with the unanswered question:

Let’s look at an out-of-season verse by Ōemaru:

Meeting the cow
I sold last year;
The autumn wind.

That verse also relies on the feeling it arouses in the reader.  But we can get another interesting feeling by making a question hokku of it:

Is that the cow
I sold last year?
The autumn wind.

Which one uses will depend on the feeling one wishes to convey.  Notice that we do not need to tell the reader what to feel.  He or she just feels it upon reading each of these verses.  That is the virtue of not saying too much, one of the many virtues of the hokku.



There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best:

Aomugi ya hibari ga agaru are sagaru
Green-barley ya skylark ga rising is descending

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have such a range of options.  “Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  “ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct.

Remember, however, that the hokku I translate here are not presented merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.

We can take today’s hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse:

Kojima ni mo   hatake utsunari    naku hibari
Little-island on even field tilling  crying skylark

I would translate it as:

Even on the small island —
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which, following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century, began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.