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.



The very old practice of using models to learn hokku is, as I have mentioned earlier, also a very good one.  One should not think of it as simplistic or elementary, because if offers the opportunity to fix these models in one’s head and to understand how hokku works structurally, and ultimately aesthetically.

When working with models, we may disregard our usual habit of only reading hokku that are in season.  You may recall that the exception to that habit is in hokku used for teaching and learning.  So one may use a model from any season for practice in any other season.

In model work, we need not pay attention to the Japanese version of a hokku.  The Japanese language is structurally very different than English.  When learning hokku in English, it is important to work from English models.

In the study of models, we quickly find that there are several types of common hokku.  By learning these different types, we expand our range.  Because it is so frequent and useful, I like to begin with the “standard” hokku.

A standard hokku consists of a setting, a subject, and an action, not always in that order.  Here is a standard hokku by Uejima Onitsura, whom we commonly know as just Onitsura:

A cool wind;
Filling the sky —
The sound of pines.

Working with such a model is simply a matter of changing the various elements in it and substituting others.  We can change one or two or all of them, and each will give a different result.  Some changes will be effective, some will not.  By doing this, we learn how to combine elements in hokku, and we also learn the overall structure.

Onitsura’s hokku consists of these elements:

A cool wind; (setting)
Filling the sky —  (action)
The sound of pines. (subject)

Here is how one begins to work with a model through changing elements:

The spring morning: (setting)
Filling the forest — (action)
The sound of birds.  (subject)

It is easy to see that we have substituted other elements in the same structure.  We can go on doing this, using a wide range of topics:

The morning sky;
Filling the meadows —
The gold of poppies

One can easily see that the possibilities are infinite, which is why there are great numbers of hokku just of the “standard” kind alone.  And that is only one of several kinds of hokku.

One must not think this method too basic.  It is remarkably useful, and it enables the diligent student to quickly learn the basic forms of hokku.  When one adds to this the knowledge of the aesthetics of hokku, it provides an excellent grounding in the writing of original verses.

Any of the good hokku in the archives of this site may be used as models.  The more one works with them, the more one will expand one’s knowledge.  A teacher can show how to work, but only the student can do the learning through repeated practice.

If anyone has questions about this or about anything else, feel free to ask me by clicking on the “comment” button at the end of this or any other article.  Your question will be seen only by me, and I will reply to your email address.



Those who have recently stumbled across my site might not understand what is happening here.  Some may think I am just presenting an archive of old hokku in new translations; others may think I am here to complain about modern haiku.

I do present old hokku here with my new translations; and I do bemoan what modern haiku did (and still continues to do, for the most part) to the old hokku tradition.  But my real purpose here is to teach hokku — to explain what it really is and how to write it.  I only talk about haiku now and then because to learn hokku, one must be able to distinguish it from haiku, which began much later and distorted the old hokku tradition.  And to learn hokku, one must correctly understand how old hokku were written, what their inherent aesthetics are, and the various techniques and principles employed.

I agree with Onitsura that the best way to learn hokku — and this is even more true of modern writers — is to imitate the models of one’s teacher.  I could just present my own verses and say, “do the same,” but I further believe that the best way to maintain continuity in hokku between the old tradition and our new practice is by using all the best old hokku as models.  Thus we learn not only from Onitsura, but also from Bashō and Gyōdai and Taigi and Buson and the other writers when they were at their best.

There are certain overall principles and aesthetics that apply to all of these writers and more, even though some may have had their own particular tendencies in writing.

The verses I translate here — those I present favorably — are really models for students to use in writing their own contemporary hokku.  This learning from the models of a teacher is the old way to learn hokku, and as I teach it, it is also the modern way to learn hokku because it is a very good way, as Onitsura recognized some three hundred years ago.

In the past few weeks I have spent considerable time in explaining what went wrong at the end of the 19th century, and how modern haiku pushed hokku into near oblivion.  It is important to know all of that, but now it is time to concentrate again on what this site is really about — the transmission and learning of hokku.  If hokku is to survive at all, there must be new writers.  Otherwise the tradition will disappear.

This site, then, is a place where I not only share my pleasure in traditional hokku but also a place where I teach others how to write it and encourage them to do so.
I have been doing this a long time now — quite a few years.  But given the fact that even the name of hokku nearly disappeared into oblivion, along with the knowledge of how to practice it, one must be patient in bringing it back to life.

The revival of hokku is particularly difficult in our modern materialistic society, which tends to turn away from the chief subject matter of hokku — Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, not apart from it.  And few there are today who admire the poverty, simplicity, and spirituality of the old hokku.   Nonetheless it is to those few that I address what I write here.



I have mentioned previously the simple, elegant — one might even say “clean” feeling one gets from the hokku of Onitsura.  It is unfortunate that he had no reliable students to carry on his kind of verse.  Because of that, people tend to think of Bashō as the “founder” of our kind of hokku.  But he was only one of two, and we should never forget Onitsura.

Regular readers here will know that there are different kinds of hokku.  There is the “standard” hokku that we use in beginning teaching, a very common kind consisting of a setting, a subject, and an action.  There are “question” hokku that leave the reader with an unanswered question.  There are “occasion” hokku that are written for a special occasion and have two completely different levels of meaning.  And there are other kinds, including the “statement” hokku.

A statement hokku, you may recall, is simply making a simple, non-controversial, factual statement about something.  That is what we find in the following hokku by Onitsura.  But before we look at that verse, we need to understand its subject.

As you know, in Japan there were fixed subjects for certain times of the year, and in old hokku (unlike modern hokku in English), these took the form of definite season words.  When one read a verse with such a word, one automatically knew the season in which it was written.  This was a helpful shortcut in the beginning and in a limited environment, but over time the system of season words became unwieldy and impractical, which is why today we simply mark each hokku written with its season.

The seasonal indicator in this hokku is the “change of clothes,” that time of year when one (in fact when everyone, in the old days in Japan) changed from the heavier cold weather clothing to the lighter clothing of warmer days.   This is traditionally considered a “summer” topic, but in many parts of the world (as in mine), it is more likely to be a topic for the latter part of spring.

Here is Onitsura’s “statement” hokku:

Ware wa made    ukiyo wo nugade    koromogae
I          wa still-not      floating-world wo remove  change-of-clothes

The “floating world” is the world of desires and illusions, meaning the everyday world in which we live.  It is also the world that is, like its pleasures, only temporary and transient.  In English we would call it the “material” life or the “worldly” life as opposed to a life of deeper spiritual understanding.

Onitsura, then, is taking stock of his life at this time of the year when one formally changes clothing.  And his conclusion is:

Not yet
Have I removed the floating world;
The change of clothes.

An English writer might put it this way:

Having not yet
Removed the garments of worldliness,
The change of clothes.

Or one could put it like this:

My worldliness
Still not removed;
The change of clothes.

One suspects that Onitsura, while being honest, was also a little hard on himself, because his verses tend to be far less “worldly” than those of other writers.

Onitsura, however, is simply and clearly recognizing the truth that was also seen by Henry David Thoreau in Walden:

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.  Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old….”

Onitsura recognized that at the time of the formal changing of clothes, it was far more important to be concerned with one’s “spiritual” clothing.  He knew that to judge a man by his outward appearance and not by the condition of his spirit was a very superficial judgment indeed.

But more important, Onitsura recognized that the condition of his “spiritual” clothes was his responsibility, and that merely changing his outward garments from heavy to light clothes was not the change that one really needs to make.



There are two ways of looking at Masaoka Shiki (1869-1902):

Viewed historically, Shiki was the first “haiku” writer.  So “haiku” really began only with Shiki, near the end of the 19th century.  Everything before him was hokku, in the wider context of haikai.

Viewed technically, however,  Shiki was the last of the prominent writers of hokku; Shiki’s verse still followed the old hokku requirements of season and of length of phonetic units, and in fact most of them are indistinguishable in form and content from hokku.  Their peculiarities are due to Shiki’s own view of what verse should be, but that view in practice was still so conservative that if Shiki had been both the first and the last “haiku” writer, his verses would still be considered hokku, if sometimes a bit odd or flat.

Numbers of Shiki’s verses were negatively influenced by his chronic illness.  One feels on reading them that not only was the man sick, but those particular verses are sick as well.  Nonetheless, R. H. Blyth was able to say that even though Shiki’s personality is unattractive, “we are struck with the large number of excellent, perfect verses which he wrote.”  When he was good he was pleasantly good, and when he was bad, his verses seem ill or flat and two-dimensional.

From Shiki onward, the “haiku” he began went downhill.  So we can regard Shiki as either the last major writer of the hokku, or as the first writer of the haiku.  If seen as the latter, we must recognize that Shiki has little or nothing in common with what is called modern haiku in the West today.  Conservative modern Japanese haiku (which is still, for the time being, the preferred kind in Japan), is more closely related to Shiki through his student Kyōshi, whose verses were not as good on the whole as those of his teacher.

Blyth attributes Shiki’s failures and weaknesses to the fact that Shiki had no religion, that consequently we feel in him “some want of depth; the baby has been thrown out with the bath-water.”  There is indeed something very superficial in Shiki, and Blyth said correctly that “we feel something a little hard, superficial, unloving in him.”

As unattractive a personality as he may have been, quite a few of his hokku are tranquil and pleasant, and as readers here know, I often compare his better verses to the pleasant block prints of Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) and Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950).  If you are not familiar with their work, find some examples on the internet, and you will easily see the parallels with the verses of Shiki.

As an example of Shiki at his best, Blyth gives this verse (my translation here), which differs not one whit from earlier hokku:

Shima-jima ni   hi wo tomoshikeri    haru no umi
Island-island at  light wo have-been-lit   spring ‘s sea

On all the islands,
Lamps have been lit;
The spring sea.

This is an interesting mixture of elements, all having to do with spring and the increasing Yang energy that grows out of Yin.  We see that in the overall subject of the verse (spring) and in the lighting of the lamps in the mild darkness.  We see the shadowy islands in the evening sea, and the lights twinkling here and there upon them, near and far.

If all Shiki’s verses had been like this, we would perhaps see him differently.



Modern haiku is not hokku.   It is generally not even haiku.

We have seen that a hokku is a written thing-event in which an unspoken significance is perceived.  It involves Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, and it is set in the context of a season.

Raizan wrote:

Shirouo ya    sanagara ugoku     mizu no iro
Whitebait ya just-like  moves    water  ‘s color

The whitebait —
Just as though the color of water
Were moving.

Raizan got it exactly right; the translucent whitebait fish does look like the water itself has taken on a definite form and is swimming about.

If we compare that hokku with a “haiku” by Shiki, we see something interesting:

Nure-ashi de   suzume no ariku   rōka kana
Wet-feet with  sparrow ‘s  hopping verandah kana

With wet feet,
The sparrow hops
Along the porch.

What distinguishes the two verses?  Both are set in the spring.  Both involve a thing-event.  Yet one is a hokku, the other is called a “haiku.”

Both are really hokku in their aesthetics, but by Shiki calling his verse a “haiku” he automatically excluded it from the possibility of its being used –ever — as the first verse in a series of linked verses.  In this case, that is really the only difference.

We can see from this that for the most part, Shiki just continued to write hokku, but insisted on calling his hokku “haiku” because he did not care for the practice of linking verses and wanted to discourage that practice.

One can deduce correctly from this that in general, the “haiku” of Shiki were really just hokku under a different name.  Some are better, some worse, and there is a tendency in many to shallowness and mere illustration.  Nonetheless, if Shiki had not insisted on calling his verses “haiku,” generally no one would bat an eye if they were included in hokku anthologies.

One may also conclude from this that “haiku” has changed drastically from what it was in the work of Shiki.  Modern haiku often bears not the slightest resemblance to either hokku or to what Shiki practiced as haiku.  Instead, as I often repeat, it is a new verse form created in the West, primarily in the latter half of the 20th century, from misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku combined with Western notions of poetry and the whims of “recent” Western writers.



One who learns hokku learns to be free from poetry.

Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?  Isn’t a hokku a poem? The answer is that a hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.

This of course applies to hokku as I teach it.

If you stand on a rocky shore and look out at the sea, what you see is not poetry; what you see is a thing-event.  An event is something happening, and of course without a “thing” nothing happens.  So a bird flying is a thing-event; a bud on a branch is a thing-event.  The sun rising is a thing-event.  An old man sneezing is a thing-event.  A child burping is a thing-event.  Similarly, a hokku is not a poem as we usually think of a poem; instead it is a thing-event.

Buson wrote:

Haru no umi hinemosu notari notari kana
Spring ‘s sea  all-day     undulating undulating kana

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Where is the poetry in that?  It is just a statement of what is happening.

You may say it is a “poem” because it is divided into three lines, but by that definition the address on an envelope is poetry.  And of course if we present it like this,

The spring sea, rising and falling all day long.

— nothing has really changed.  So it is not simply the division into lines that makes poetry, in spite of the fact that the “beat” writer Gary Snyder made a name for himself by simply dividing prose into lines to make it appear superficially like poetry.  That is a common trick from the mid-20th century onward, deceiving many.

Nonetheless, when we look at the spring sea there is poetry in it, and R. H. Blyth tells us clearly and correctly why:

There is a poetry independent of rhyme and rhythm, of onomatopoeia and poetic brevity, of cadence and parallelism, of all form whatsoever.  It is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions, and lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  It is the seeing we do when a white butterfly flutters by us down the valley, never to return.” (Eastern Culture)

To summarize all of this quite simply, hokku is not what we ordinarily think of as poetry (so-called), but hokku lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  There we have it in a nutshell.

When we say, then, that hokku are not poems, not poetry, we are saying it so that we may distinguish it from all poetry so-called, by which we mean all that normally passes as poetry in English-language cultures.

What then, do we mean by poetry in hokku?  We mean simply a thing-event in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.

Blyth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”

That means poetry (as we are speaking of it in relation to hokku) is not something we add to a thing-event as one adds condiments to spice up a soup.  It is not a dash of metaphor, a thick slice of iambic pentameter, a pinch of alliteration.  Instead, poetry is something awakened by certain thing-events, and when we experience such a thing-event, we “automatically” perceive the poetry in it.  That is the poetical experience of hokku, and that is the entire point of hokku.  Without this poetry in a thing-event, hokku would not, could not exist.

We can say then of hokku what the German mystic Meister Eckhardt said of the Nativity:

Was nützt es mir, wenn Gott früher einmal in Bethlehem Mensch geworden ist, wenn er nicht in mir geboren wird?

“What good is it to me that God once become man in Bethlehem, if he is not born in me?”

That means, when applied to hokku, that the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.

That is why when Buson saw the sea of spring — when we read Buson’s verse that gives us only the sea of spring with nothing added — we experience that thing-event and poetry is born in us.  Yes, the poetry is in the event, but only when it is perceived by the person able to recognize the poetry, in which case the spring sea is born in that person, the thing-event takes place, and the poetry is felt.

We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader.  Without the reader the verse is just words on page.  But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.”

If you find that confusing, just remember this and you will grasp the essence of the matter:

Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader.

It is simply that when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

And that, in Blyth’s terms, is your “little enlightenment.”



I have never been an admirer of Confucius, yet one can say of the teaching of hokku what Confucius said:

“The Master said, “Do you think, my disciples, that I have any concealments?  I conceal nothing from you.  There is nothing which I do that is not shown to you, my disciples; that is my way.” (Analects 7:23)

That does not mean a teacher demands nothing of the student:

“The Master said, “I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself.  When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.” (Analects 7:8)

Well, unlike Confucius, I present one corner of the subject, and when the student cannot produce the other three from his or her own resources, I explain even further, and I repeat the lesson over and over, because it is initially very difficult for Westerners to grasp how completely different hokku is from what they are accustomed to think of as poetry.  Those in modern haiku, for example, have never understood the difference, which is why haiku has devolved into just another kind of short-form modern verse in the West, becoming simply free verse divided into three lines.

One could say that the method of learning hokku is in these words:

“The Master said, “Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;— this is knowledge.” (Analects 2:17)

We can say clearly and plainly, as did R. H. Blyth, what hokku is.  It is not a poem, it is not literature.  Instead, “it is a way of returning to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature.”

Here Blyth, like Confucius, clearly shows us one corner, and we are to supply the other three.  But Blyth demanded a great deal of Western readers, and for the most part they failed him, unable to supply the other three corners — and the result was modern haiku.

Quite simply and clearly, what Blyth meant was that hokku is nothing like what we think of when we think of poetry.  To even call it “poetry” is to mislead, because it obscures and distorts hokku with mistaken presuppositions.

We are accustomed to making a distinction between inner and outer, between the thing seen “out there” in the world and the thoughts about the thing in the mind.  But in hokku the thing out there is the thing in the mind, if we only let the mind reflect it like a bright mirror, not obscuring it with all our thoughts and commentaries.

A clear and flawless mirror reflects without adding anything.  The mind that is obscured with thoughts will reflect the thing clothed and distorted by those thoughts, remaking the thing “in our own image.”  So in hokku it is vitally important to distinguish between what we see in Nature and our thoughts and ideas about what we see in Nature.

That is why Blyth tells us that we must not obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words and thoughts.  “Things must speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear what the poets have said about them.”

That is the great distinction between hokku and modern haiku.  Modern haiku has become inseparably attached to “what the poets [meaning the writers of modern haiku themselves] have said about them.”  In haiku (in contrast to hokku), the “poet” is the most important thing, which is why those in haiku are so remarkably attached to the individual’s whim in writing, the inviolable sanctity of the will of the POET, which one is tempted to write in grand Gothic Blackletter type.

In hokku, by contrast, there are no poets.  The writer is simply the mirror that reflects Nature.  It is the job of the writer to keep the mirror wiped clean of the dust of thought and self-will.  The writer of hokku does not block the speaking of Nature with his or her own voice.  Instead, one simply lets Nature speak through the writer.

This is not some kind of verbal hocus-pocus or spacey, New-Age nonsense.  It is exactly how hokku works.

When we read the words of Mokudō,

The spring wind;
A sound of water running
Through the barley.

–where is the writer?  Where is the reader?  Both have disappeared.  There is only the spring wind, only the sound of water running through the barley field.  The truth is revealed for all to see, as Blyth says:

Each thing is preaching the Law incessantly, but this Law is not something different from the thing itself.”

Quite simply, hokku “is the revealing of this preaching by presenting us with the thing devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration...”

That is precisely what Mokudō does.  He presents us with the thing (the spring wind, the sound of water running through the barley) “devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration.”

There is no poet Mokudō.  There is only the thing simultaneously both outside and inside the mind, the bright mirror mind that reflects without adding or distorting.

Modern haiku has never understood this because it is too attached to being a “poet” and to “writing poetry.”  But hokku, as Blyth told us plainly and truly, is not poetry; it is not literature.  Instead, it is “the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

In this lies the great difference between hokku and modern haiku.  In hokku we do not even use the term “poet” in talking about ourselves and we do not use the word “poem” to describe hokku.  Hokku is simply the writer getting “himself” out of the way so that Nature may speak.  When we add our own thoughts and commentary, we drown out the voice of Nature.  That is why in hokku we just present the thing as it is, unobscured by our thoughts.

Hokku, then, is a remarkably humble form of verse.  We do not take on the pride of being “poets” and writing “poetry.”  When we write “poetry,” the writer as “POET” stands in the way of the thing.  In hokku the writer disappears so that the thing is revealed just as it is, with nothing obscuring it.

It is very important to understand these things, because without such understanding one simply will be unable to read or to write hokku.



I have always been very fond of the hokku of Onitsura, the other of the two “patriarchs” of our kind of hokku.  Onitsura’s verses have a very simple elegance, like that found in an old person who, however poor and mended his clothes, is always immaculately clean and mannered.  In Onitsura we do not find the kind of obsession with verse that we sometimes sense in Bashō, and it adds a quietness to them that is very pleasing:

Hana chitte   mata shizuka nari   Enjō-ji
Blossoms fallen  again quiet is     Enjō Temple

We can translate it as:

Blossoms fallen,
Again it is quiet;
Enjō Temple.

or as:

Quiet again,
With the blossoms all fallen;
Enjōji Temple.

The noisy, trampling crowds that came for the annual viewing of the cherry blossoms have departed.  With their leaving, everything has reverted to the stillness present before their coming.  It is a refreshing, peacefully pleasant quiet.

It has none of the dark and ghostly silence found in the last lines of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners“:

Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Those of you who pay attention to the Japanese transcriptions of the original verses that I sometimes give (and you need not pay them the slightest attention if you do not wish) may want to know that in words with a macron above a vowel — as in Enjō or Bashō, etc. — that vowel is to be pronounced twice as long. So the first is not simply Enjo, but rather En-jo-o, the second Ba-sho-o, not Basho.  It is not the difference between “long” and “short” vowels in English, but rather the amount of time taken to say the vowel, which is twice as long if the vowel has the macron.

I want to emphasize again, however, that one need not know a single Japanese word (except of course, hokku) to learn hokku, because we write in English here.  And of course how we write hokku in English is also applicable to other languages such as Spanish, German, Dutch, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, etc. etc. etc., which is probably why speakers of various languages read this site.



I was very amused by a comment in the Guardian by a fellow who attended a Quaker meeting:

“...you sit there in silence. Five minutes goes by. You shift a bit in your seat. Another five minutes goes by. Did I say goes? These five minutes crawl by like drugged somnabulating slugs. Nothing happens at all…  Another five minutes passes. It is excruciating now.”  (guardian.co.uk)

What this fellow sees as nothing happening is actually something happening, but because he is completely unfamiliar with the context, he is totally bewildered by all those people silently sitting and doing apparently nothing, and cannot recognize what is really taking place, which is something of deep significance.

It all reminds me so very much of how modern haiku enthusiasts react to hokku.  There is something happening in it, but they do not understand the aesthetic context.   Undeterred by that, they apply to it what they think should be happening in verse — and one of those things is metaphor.

If there is any verse to which modern haiku pundits might apply metaphor, surely it would be this summer verse by Bashō:

Takotsubo ya    hakanaki yume wo    natsu no tsuki

Octopus-pot ya fleeting dreams wo summer  ‘s moon

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.

The octopus finds a cozy, earthenware pot that looks to be a useful shelter.  But when dawn comes, the pot and octopus will be pulled from the water, and his life will be over.  The pot is a trap.

Those frantic to see metaphor in hokku will say the octopus pots are metaphors for human life.  But they will be wrong.  In hokku an octopus pot is an octopus pot. Human life is human life.  There is no need for metaphor, which actually detracts from what the writer of hokku intends.

Westerners are accustomed to overstatement, to endless analysis.  Hokku merely presents the reader with something happening in Nature.  The point of the hokku is in what is happening, just as the point of a Quaker meeting is in the gathered silence.  A Quaker needs no minister or priest standing at the end of the room sermonizing or ritualizing.  The silence, which seems to be “nothing,” is quite full in itself.  And the hokku needs neither metaphor nor simile — it too is quite sufficient in itself.

To grasp hokku, one must really abandon what one thinks one knows about poetry, all the baggage and explanation that goes with English literature.  The last thing one needs is to misapply all that baggage to something that neither requires nor is illumined by it.

Getting modern haiku enthusiasts to see this, however, is is remarkably difficult, because they come to hokku with expectations and notions that simply do not apply to it.  Very few are able to abandon those expectations and misapplied notions, to free their minds so they are able to at last perceive how very different hokku is from everything they have thought of up to this point as poetry.

Most in modern haiku do not even try, and are quite content to write free verse in three lines and label it haiku, never questioning how — or even if — it relates to all that was written by all the hokku writers prior to Shiki’s presentation of the “haiku” to Japan.

That is why I always tell students that to learn hokku, one should not even think of it as poetry.  By abandoning that context altogether, one is finally free to see hokku for what it really is:

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.



Cooks and craftsmen know that it is important to choose the right tool for the right job.  The same applies to verse.

In my years of teaching hokku, I commonly and often heard the complaint from haiku enthusiasts that hokku did not permit them to write about such things as their romantic relationships, or their attitude to a current war, or their cars or cell phones.  One phrase I heard so often that it seemed a mantra among them was, “If Bashō were alive today, he would write about these things.”

No, he would not.  How can I know that?  Because hokku is specifically about Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and to make it other than that would be to turn it into a quite different category of verse (i.e. “haiku”).  The root of the problem is that the would-be writers — the haiku enthusiasts — did not grasp or share the hokku aesthetic, and that is the reason for their dissatisfaction.

But the principle of using the right tool extends more widely than simply the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  Donald Keene gives an excellent example in his book World Within Walls: Japanese LIterature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867.  Kamo no Mabuchi, a waka writer of the 18th century, made a verse on the death of his mother, prefacing it with this:

When I was told that my mother had died I could hardly believe it was true; I had spent seven years away from her, able to see her ony in dreams.  But the person who informed me was in tears.  I had supposed our separation would last only a little while longer, and had long looked forward to spending her old age with her, going together to different places, living in one house.  But what a vain and sad world it proved to be.  What am I to do now?

His waka (my translation) is:

I hoped
That like wild geese
We’d gather —
But all in vain;
The great village of Yoshino.

As Keene points out, without the preface one would not be able to make head nor tail of the waka; but even more significant, there is more poetry in the prose preface than in the verse itself when divorced from the preface.

Mabuchi would have been wiser to have written in the wider format of Chinese verse (which Japanese sometimes did), giving the scope necessary to convey in verse what he tells us in his preface.

Bashō made a similar error, as R. H. Blyth points out, by trying to write as hokku what minimally required the somewhat wider format of waka:

The autumn wind;
Brush and fields —
Fuha Barrier.

How flat and spiritless it is, compared to the waka on which it was based:

No one dwells
At the Fuha Barrier;
Its wooden gables
Have fallen to ruin.
Only the autumn wind.

That is far superior to the weak soup of Bashō’s attempted hokku, and again, the reason is that Bashō chose the wrong tool for the job.

Hokku, as I often say, was never meant to be all things to all men.  It has its tasks and it performs them well.  But when one chooses a subject requiring more scope, one should write it in a more expansive form, whether that of waka or “Chinese” verse (but in English, of course), or in whatever format fits one’s needs.

Can you imagine Walt Whitman trying to put this into hokku form?

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d — and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

It would have been an exercise in futility.  And similarly, writing hokku does not mean one must write ONLY hokku.  Some subjects require more space, and for them one must select a format that is most appropriate to the task.

In doing so, one must not try to make hokku stretch and distort to fit whatever one wants to force into it.  Instead, use it for its proper purpose, and for other purposes do what a good cook or craftsman does — use other and more appropriate tools.



Hokku has deliberate limits on its subject matter, and one of those boundaries excludes what we loosely call “technology.”

As a result of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent great expansion in use of technology and consumption of fossil fuels, humans entered an Age of Illusion in which the misperception became common that Nature was little more than a vast repository of resources to be gathered and used however humans saw fit.  Humans saw themselves more and more as separate from — and in general superior to — Nature.

Hokku — and a life in keeping with hokku — reverses this trend.  One cannot write hokku without the realization that Nature gave birth to humans, and thus humans are a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the only realistic and healthy attitude.

It is also an antidote to the wrong thinking so prevalent in the world today — that the world was made for humans, that all of Nature “belongs” to humans to do with as they will.  And it is only by realizing how intimately connected with Nature we are that just possibly, humans might yet have a slim chance of averting a final environmental catastrophe brought on by decades of ignorance, arrogance, selfishness and greed.

So it is not simply a matter of aesthetics that hokku avoids technology and never abandons Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature as its inherent subject matter.  It is also a tiny counterbalance to the immensity of wrong thinking and wrong action in the world today.  By avoiding putting “technology” in our verse, we have to pay greater attention to Nature and how we relate to it, and if anything might save humans from destroying themselves, it would be that realization of our inseparability from the same Nature that humans have so raped, battered and abused.  In harming Nature we harm ourselves.

It is worth mentioning that even Shiki, who ultimately caused much trouble by his somewhat short-sighted, revisionist creation of the new “haiku” as an offshoot of hokku near the end of the 19th century, did not go as far in abandoning Nature as many in the modern haiku community have done.

What we call “technology” in hokku, Shiki called “artifacts of civilization,” and he wrote that most of them are “unpoetic” and thus difficult to use in poetry.  He said that those who supposed that his admonition to “write about new things” meant to write verse on such things as “trains and railways” were mistaken, but that if one does write about them, “one has no choice but to mention something poetic as well.”  If a verse contains an element of technology, Shiki felt, one had to counterbalance it — “make it more attractive” as he put it, by including such other elements as violets blooming by the railroad tracks or poppies dropping their petals after a train had passed (see Dawn to the West, Donald Keene, 1984, pg. 51).

Shiki’s admonition, though it seems overtly based more on his ideas of what was “beautiful” in verse than on anything more profound, nonetheless resembles somewhat the principle in hokku that even though technology is generally avoided, if rarely some aspect of it not too inharmonious with hokku is included, the “technological” element should not predominate, but should always be secondary to Nature.

Hokku may be the ONLY verse form in existence today that strictly limits its subject matter to the intimate connecction between Nature and humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  For that alone it should be valued and protected, and it should never be diluted by confusion with or admixture into the chaos of modern haiku, which in its fragmentation and endless bickering reflects the confused and blunderingly rootless state of modern society in general.



I have spoken before about the pervasive influence of Mahayana Buddhist spirituality — influenced by Daoism and a dash of Animism (via Shintō) — in old hokku.  Usually I just call it the “spirituality” of hokku, and some call it the influence of Zen in hokku, which indeed historically it was.

When we come to the verses of Issa, however, we see a variant influence.  It is still Mahayana, but with a difference; Issa was a follower of the Pure Land sect, the aspect of Japanese Buddhism — in fact a kind of “folk Buddhism” — that some see as most like Christianity.

Zen believed in relying on one’s own efforts.  Pure Land believed in relying on the “other,” the other being in this case the compassion of the Buddha Amitabha, called “Amida” in Japan, who in Pure Land tradition vowed to save all beings who sincerely call upon him.  In feeling, Pure Land is very different from Zen.  It is the “easy” way, which is no doubt why it became the most popular form of Buddhist practice in Japan.

Today Buddhism in Japan has degenerated to the point where temples are handed down in the families of married priests, and people seldom visit them at all, except on special occasions.  In a bizarre twist, Buddhism has become associated in the minds of the modern Japanese people with funerals, as the country becomes ever more materialistic.  Even in his day, R. H. Blyth lamented that the Japanese had abandoned their traditional culture.  How horrified he would be to see today’s technological Japan, and Buddhism in even greater decline there!

But back to Issa and his brand of Buddhist practice.

He wrote a series of six verses all on the same theme, which is the “Six Ways”  or “Six Paths” that one may take after death, standing for the six realms in which one may be reborn.  When Protestant Christians say they have been “reborn,” what they mean is not at all what a Buddhist means by the term.  In traditional Buddhism, when one dies, one’s kamma (karma in sanskrit) causes rebirth in one of several realms, either in a “hell,” or as a suffering ghost, or as an animal, a nature spirit, a human (the most favorable in Buddhist belief) or as a deva or “god.”  Each of these realms has its own characteristics.

One can see that in these verses Issa has a peculiar take on the various realms, seeing them not so much in other places as in this very world.  Keep in mind that this is not really what hokku is for, but Issa had his own personal quirks and his hokku reflect the kind of person he was.

Here are the “Six Ways”:

1.  HELL

Yūzuki ya   nabe no naka nite   naku tanishi
Evening-moon ya pot ‘s inside boiling  mud-snails

The evening moon;
Boiling in the pot —
Crying mud snails.

This verse reflects Issa’s awareness of lower forms of life, which permeates his verses.  Quite aware of suffering in his own life, he was aware of it also in the lives of “lesser” creatures. Isn’t it obvious that for many creatures, this world is Hell?

The next higher stage of rebirth is


Hana chiru ya   nomitaki mizu wo   tōgasumi
Blossoms fall ya drink-desire water wo  far-mist

Falling blossoms;
The water we thirst for —
In the far mists.

The realm of Hungry Ghosts is the realm of spirits whose tormenting desires cannot be satisfied.  They want to satisfy their hunger but cannot, to satisfy their thirst but are unable.  Here amid the falling cherry blossoms — which embody transience — the water for which the spirits desperately thirst is far off somewhere in the confused mists of the afterlife, always enticing them, always grieving them, always never quite attainable.


Chiru hana ni    butsu tomo hō tomo   shiranu kana
Falling blossoms in   Buddha even Law even know-not kana

In the falling blossoms,
They see neither the Buddha
Nor the Law.

Animals have not the perception of humans.  Men look at the falling cherry blossoms and are able to see the impermanence of life in their transience, and think of the Buddha and the Law — the Dhamma (Dharma in sanskrit) that will lead them out of suffering.  Animals are aware of none of that, and Issa feels for them.


Koegoe ni    hana no kokage no bakuchi kana
Voice-voice at   blossom ‘s shade ‘s gamblers kana

With arguing voices
In the shade of the blossoms —
The gamblers.

The Asura (Japanese Ashura or Shura) realm is the realm of temperamental, self-important and easy-to-anger creatures just below the human realm, a kind of touchy nature spirit.

Here Issa sees them as shouting and arguing as they gamble in the shade of the blooming cherry trees.  In spite of the beauty of the blossoms, the Asuras are too intent on their own “pushy” pursuits to notice.


Saku hana no naka ni   ugomeku shujō kana
Blooming blossoms ‘s among at  wriggling human-beings kana

The blooming flowers,
Wriggling humans.

Not a flattering picture.  Humans wiggle about, moving here and there, amid the blooming cherry trees.  One pictures a crowd of people viewing the blossoms, turning this way and that, but really going nowhere.

And finally, we come to the realm of the devas or gods:


Kasumu hi ya    sazo tennin no    gotaikutsu
Haze day ya surely heaven-person  ‘s tedium

The hazy day;
Even the devas
Must be bored.

It is a very quiet, hazy day in spring.  Nothing to do, nowhere to go, and the hours drag.  The lives of the devas in the heaven realms are unimaginably longer than those of humans.  If humans are so easily bored, what must such a day be like for the devas, Issa wonders.

One can readily see that there is both deadly seriousness and humor in this series of verses.  And like “Occasion” hokku, we can read them on two different levels.  On one level these things are happening in the various realms in which humans may be reborn.  On another level, all of these things are happening in this world.

1.  In this world creatures and humans suffer at the hands of others — Hell.
2.  In this world both animals and humans may ignore the transience of life — Animals.
3.  In this world human desires are endless — Hungry Ghosts.
4.  In this world people bluster and argue and fight to overcome — Asuras
5.  In this world humans waste their time, acting as though they will live forever — Humans
6.  In this world people are easily bored — Devas

Issa mixes them all up, seeing the Hells and the Heavens and all Six Realms interpenetrating this world.  As Omar Khayyam wrote in Fitzgerald’s translation, “I myself am Heaven and Hell.”

As is obvious, this kind of verse is not really “normal” hokku, and I only post it here so that readers may see some of the odd variations into which hokku was drawn historically.  Issa, for the most part, does not make a good model for hokku, but just as Pure Land Buddhism became the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, even so the quirky hokku of Issa — which are very human and often very psychological — became the most popular among the ordinary people of Japan.

As the old saying goes, De gustibus non disputandum est — there is no arguing about tastes.  We can, however, point out the differences between hokku put to these ends and the kind of hokku we practice, which from the Japanese perspective would be more “Zen” oriented than “Pure Land” oriented.



Now back to spring….

Rofu wrote an interesting verse set in the spring:

Ashiato wo    kani no ayashimu    shiohi kana
Foot-step wo crab ‘s suspicion     ebb-tide kana

If one wants a good, brief look at how very different Japanese hokku looked from English language hokku, this a good example.  Essentially and very literally, what this verse says is:

At the footstep, crab’s suspicion, ebb tide.

One would not suspect that of being anything remotely resembling verse, were it not for the fact that the original has the standard 5-7-5 phonetic units measure characteristic of Japanese verse, which relies in its traditional manifestations on combinations of lines of five or seven units.

In English, however, we must present it a bit differently:

The crab
Is suspicious of the footprint;
Ebb tide.

“Footprint” in the original, is ashi-ato, literally “foot-trace.”  We have already encountered the word ato in my discussion of Bashō’s “Summer grasses” hokku, where it referred to what remained behind.  Here what remains is an ashiato, a footprint.

The crab, scuttling along the sand at low tide, comes to this vast depression — something out of the ordinary, and therefore suspicious.  He pauses in uncertainty.

The whole point of this verse is that the reader becomes one with the suspicious crab.  We feel his hesitation and uncertainty on coming across the strange imprint in the sand.

We are accustomed to having animals and other creatures anthropomorphized, made to look and behave like humans.  Here the reader has the opportunity to go the other way — to see things from the crab point of view.

Verses about the ebb tide are traditionally spring verses in Japan.  The two best of such verses are this one and the one we have already seen, Chiyo-ni’s

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

The difference in Japanese is that the latter verse uses the term shiohi gata — “the ebb tide beach” in the original, while the former uses just shiohi — “ebb tide.”

Aesthetically Chiyo-ni’s verse is another of those studies in contrasts.  We have the weakening energy of the receding tide (Yin) yet within that environment, we find things that appear lifeless (Yin) are indeed very much alive (Yang), as they wiggle and move in the hand.



Metaphor is not a part of good hokku as I teach it.  Let’s look at just what a metaphor is:

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it is a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object different from, but analogous to, that to which it is properly applicable.”

Anyone who has studied Western poetry or English literature in general should readily know what that means when applied to poetry.  It means, put simply, saying one thing is another, as opposed to the simile, which says one thing is like another.

If a writer, for example, says that mountains are “silent folk,” he is saying that mountains are “folk,” meaning people.  He does not, of course, really believe the mountains are silent folk; he is just using metaphor as a poetic technique to make his point.  If he were using a simile (which he probably should in this case), he would say instead, that mountains are like silent folk.

When William Wordsworth wrote that he would “sit and play with similes,” he came up with many names for the daisy.  He called it “a nun demure, of lowly port” and “a little Cyclops, with one eye.”  These, of course, are really metaphors used in that manner, but if Wordsworth had written instead, “The daisy is like a nun demure, of lowly port,” he would be using simile.

Where Robert Burns said in simile, “My love is like a red, red rose,” Robert Herrick instead chose metaphor — “You are a tulip seen today…”

There is no confusion, then, about what a metaphor is and what a simile is, and neither is to be found in good hokku as I teach it.


Yesterday I used this verse to demonstrate how some and misinterpret hokku.  It is Bashō’s hokku

Summer grasses –
All that remains
Of warriors’ dreams.

You, dear reader, know what metaphor is, and there is not the slightest trace of it to be found in that verse.  If Bashō had said instead

Warriors’ dreams–
They are only summer grasses
In the fields.

THAT would be metaphor.  But of course that is not what Basho wrote, just a rewriting to make his verse fit Western metaphor.

In an earlier posting, I mentioned another old hokku of Bashō that is commonly misinterpreted as metaphor.  Let’s look at it again, because it reveals the technique that was really used:

Kare eda ni   karasu no tomari-keri   aki no kure
Withered branch on   crow ga has-perched   autumn ‘s evening

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Some go wild with this one, finding it filled with metaphor.  The see it in terms of Western poetry instead of hokku aesthetics.

The verse, instead of being an example of metaphor in hokku, is instead a very good example of the principle of internal reflection.

To clarify, let’s look at the difference:

Metaphor is saying one thing is another.
Internal reflection is the combining of elements that reflect one another.

Here is how internal reflection works in this particular hokku:

We have these elements:

1.  A withered branch
2.  A perching crow
3.  An autumn evening

The branch, which is withered, is reflected in the autumn, which is the time of withering in Nature; further, evening is the time of day when Yang energies decline into night, so all these elements exhibit a loss of Yang energies.

The crow is black; this is reflected in the gathering darkness of the evening,

Everything in this verse, then, depicts a decline of Yang.  The crow has settled on the branch, reflecting the passivity of Yin; the darkness of the crow is Yin, as is the evening, as is the autumn, as is the withered branch.

One may alternatively translate aki no kure as “autumn’s end,” but the same principle still applies.  The end of autumn is a decline of Yang energies, a time of growing Yin.

It is just that simple.   We should not see metaphor in the verse, but rather the internal reflection that takes place among its component elements.

Now why do so many fail to see this?  It is because they have never been taught the importance and significance of the use of Yin and Yang in hokku, and how they are employed in internal reflection.  So they misinterpret the verse — as they misinterpret numbers of other hokku — as examples of metaphor, because they see it only in terms of what is already familiar to them, and what is familiar to them is the methodology of Western poetry and literature, which they then misapply to hokku.



It is a mistake to think that I present old hokku here simply to translate them into English.  My ultimate purpose in doing so is to teach readers how to write new and original hokku in English, and one of the best ways to do this is to show them not only how old hokku were written, but also how to put them into English-language form.

Chiyo-ni wrote:

Hirou mono    mina ugoku nari   shiohigata
Picked-up things all moving are  tide-ebb-beach

Things picked up
Are all moving;
The ebb-tide beach.

Everything in the Japanese version is there, but I prefer a shortened and re-arranged version that demands slightly more of the reader:

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

That verse flows more smoothly, and seems as though written originally in English.  And that is how our verse should be; they should be English-language hokku, not adaptations of Japanese form and usage.

We can say then that English-language hokku preserves the aesthetics and techniques of old Japanese hokku, but makes them thoroughly American or British or Australian, etc.   We should never view hokku in English as a kind of cultural outpost of old Japan (and certainly not of modern Japan); instead our hokku should reflect our own country and environment.

That does not mean, however, that if we live in a busy city we should write hokku about subways or elevators or taxis.  That would violate the Nature-centeredness of hokku.  What it means is that our hokku should be in keeping with the language and the natural environment of the place in which we live.  Living in a busy city is simply not conducive to writing hokku.  Living in the country is far better, or even in a small town where people still have yards and gardens and nearby woodlands and streams.  That is just a fact of hokku.

People in modern haiku often complain about this, saying that hokku is simply not attuned to the modern world.  That is not true.  Hokku is always attuned to the present world, but it is not attuned to present human technology, because a technological lifestyle really has nothing to do with hokku.  Imagine Henry David Thoreau living in the heart of a big city.  He would have been a fish out of water.  He would have had to make trips to the countryside to nourish his spirit, to find green spaces, clean waters, and trees.

The fact that hokku is not attuned to a modern, technological lifestyle is not a defect in hokku; it is a defect in modern life.  That is why we do not (as people in modern haiku do) adjust hokku to fit our lifestyle; instead we adjust our lifestyle to fit hokku.



In old hokku cherry blossoms were so prominent that they were often not even called cherry blossoms in writing.  Just the word hana — “blossoms” — by itself came to mean cherry blossoms.

Conversely, the word cherry (sakura) used to describe the tree was also simply interpreted as a cherry tree in blossom.  Those were two of the important conventions of old hokku.

We could add to that the deep significance of the brief blooming period of the cherry trees, which caused the mention of cherry blossoms alone to evoke a feeling of brevity and transience in the reader — the brevity of youth and beauty, the transience of life.  So even though the subject “cherry blossoms” is a spring subject, associated with youth and freshness and beginnings, inherent in it is also the knowledge of the transience of such things, the impermanence and fragility of life and happiness.

In the gap
Between rough windy rains —
The first cherry blossoms.

This — by Chora — is a study in contrasts — the strong, blowing rain, and the delicacy of the opening cherry blossoms in the pause between storms.  One cannot help being reminded of Shakespeare’s famous lines from Sonnet 18:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May….

Huge crowds would come out to view the cherry blossoms, walking among the blooming trees, as Chora also wrote:

All the people,
Going into blossoms,
Coming out of blossoms.

In that verse, the abundance of people is in keeping with the abundance of the blossoms.  The people are dressed in their finery, as the trees are clothed in beautiful blossoms.

Even Issa has this reverent attitude:

Having bathed in hot water
And reverenced the Buddha —
Cherry blossoms!

Issa has prepared himself for the viewing by bathing his body and by purifying his mind.

Bashō is known for his practice of mixing traditional “high” subjects found in the more “poetic” waka with “low” and earthy subjects to make hokku, as here:

Beneath the trees,
Even in the soup and fish salad —
Cherry blossoms.

This kind of verse is a counterbalance to over-romanticizing.

Chora also has a remarkably peaceful verse:

The sound of petals falling
Through the trees.

Literally, he says “of falling petals rubbing.”  We could also translate it like this:

The rustle of falling
Cherry blossoms.

Here again we see the importance of contrasting combinations in hokku.  The silence is only enhanced by the almost imperceptible rustling of the falling blossoms.



As many of you know, before the Winter Solstice I posted a message saying that the next day would see my last posting here.

Well, obviously that did not happen.  Why?  Because over time I noticed that significant numbers of people kept visiting my site whether I posted or not, reading the past messages in the archives.  I did not want to leave them with nothing new to read, because I very much want to encourage any interest in hokku, whether it comes from those who want to learn to write hokku or from those who just want to know what, exactly, it is.

Given the circumstances, I have revised my old Winter Solstice message.  Here is how it now reads:

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 everyone 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.



Wafū wrote:

Chō kiete    tamashii ware ni    kaeri keri
Butterfly having-gone    spirit me to  returned

The butterfly gone,
My spirit
Came back to me.

What does he mean?  He means that he was so absorbed in watching the butterfly that he and the butterfly became one, and Wafū lost consciousness of himself and was only — for a short while — the flitting, fluttering butterfly.  Then the butterfly was gone, and Wafū suddenly “came to himself” as we say in English.

This happens all the time.  Watch a child reading a good book.  The child forgets himself or herself, becoming the action in the book.  Then a shout from the mother brings the child back “to the body,” back to our customary separation of subject and object.

This subject-object unity is the very essence of hokku.  In hokku the writer — we do not even want to be so grand as to say “poet” — disappears in the presence of what is happening in Nature.  When he looks at a tree, he becomes a tree; when he looks at a rock in the stream, he becomes the rock and the water swirling about it.  He forgets himself for the moment, and that is not only how hokku takes place, but it is also one of the most important ways in which hokku differs from conventional Western poetry, particularly modern English-language poetry, in which writers seem so desperately self-obsessed.

Wafū’s verse, then, has something important to teach us about hokku.  Technically, however, it is just a simple “standard” hokku in form, consisting of a setting, a subject, and an action:

Setting: The butterfly gone,
Subject:  My spirit
Action:  Came back to me

Remember that a setting is the wider atmosphere, environment, or circumstance in which something takes place.  The subject is what we “focus” on in that atmosphere, environment, or circumstance, and the action is something moving or changing, however quickly or slowly.  One can write countless hokku using this “pattern” and the old hokku writers did.  Remember that setting, subject, and action need not be in that order.

One has to be really careful in writing hokku about a “delicate” subject such as a butterfly.  It is easy to fall into sentimentality or “prettiness,” both of which are death to hokku.

Shiki, for example, wrote a really awful “haiku” on the butterfly:

Butterfly sleeping on a stone,
You will dream
Of my unhappy life.

Well, no it won’t.  The butterfly could not possibly be less concerned with Shiki, and Shiki should have concerned himself more with the butterfly.

There are unfortunately more bad verses written by old Japanese authors on the dreams of butterflies, but we have no reason to add to the smelly pile.  Instead, we should write more objectively, as did Buson:

Tsurigane ni   tomarite nemuru   kochō kana
Temple-bell on  having-perched sleeping  butterfly kana

On the temple bell,
A butterfly has settled,

Now on the surface there is not much to this.  But the whole point of the verse is in knowing that the temple bell is a very heavy, cast metal object that is struck at certain hours of the day by a long, horizontal swinging pole; when struck, it emits a great, deep BBbbboooooooooooooonnnnnngngngngngng that vibrates not only the whole bell but all the air around it, sending out a sound that can be heard for a great distance.  From that the perceptive reader will gather, correctly, that this is a hokku of “harmony of contrast.”

Remember that there are hokku made by combining similar harmonious elements, but there are also hokku made by combining contrasting elements that when put together still make a kind of overall harmony.  That is the case in this verse.  The contrasting elements are the great, dark, heavy bell and the very small, very fragile, butterfly.  The butterfly is always silent; the bell is silent only for the present.  When struck, it will vibrate with great energy, and the butterfly will flutter away.  We are to sense all of this when we read the verse, but to say it really spoils it.  Nonetheless in teaching hokku, one has to explain such things until a student develops a “hokku” spirit and begins to understand them for himself or herself.

Garaku composed a hokku that shows us the nature of the butterfly:

Even chased,
The butterfly is not
In a hurry.

Try to catch a butterfly, and it will just casually, apparently thoughtlessly, slowly flutter away, pause, and flutter off again at its usual, leisurely speed.

Sora too wrote a “butterfly” verse:

Back and forth,
Stitching the rows of barley —
A butterfly.

R. H. Blyth, however, improves on it by removing the “stitching” simile, which I shall also do here:

Back and forth
Between the rows of barley —
A butterfly.

Why does that improve it?  Because the butterfly is not really “stitching,” just making a back and forth, to and fro repetitive motion.  Butterflies do not “stitch,” and when we use such a word, it takes us just that much farther away from reality.





Buson, who wrote some rather artifical and contrived hokku, also managed to write one of the simplest and most effective of spring hokku:

Shoku no hi wo   shoku ni utsusu ya   haru no yū
light   ‘s  flame wo light at  transfer ya spring ‘s evening

The flame of one light
Transferred to another light
The Spring evening.

Translated woodenly — literally — like that, it does not look like much.  That is why when we translate a hokku into English, we must not just say exactly what the verse means in Japanese, because the Japanese language does not say things as we would say them in English.  We only get the full effect of the verse when we make it fully English, like this:

Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.

I always stress to my students the importance of Yang and Yin in hokku, of understanding how they are applied in countless verses.  We see here a very effective use of the Yin-Yang principle.

Yin, you will recall, is the dark and passive principle in the universe; Yang is the bright and active principle.  Everything is a combination of Yin and Yang.  The summer is Yang, the winter Yin.  Yin grows until it reaches its maximum, then it becomes Yang; Yang grows until it reaches its maximum, then it transforms to Yin.  Spring is a period when Yin and Yang are mixed, but it is growing Yang, because Yang increases until the height of summer; then Yang begins to decline into fall (autumn), which is another mixed season, but of growing Yin and declining Yang.

This hokku, then, is set in spring, when Yin and Yang are mixed, and Yang is growing.  It is also set in the evening, which is growing Yin — the light of day declines into the darkness of night.

Knowing all this, we can appreciate the interplay of elements in Buson’s hokku.

It is twilight — evening begins, and the light of day is fading and the shadows growing.  Someone has lit a candle that shines in the gathering darkness.  And someone is using the flame of that candle to light another candle, increasing the Yang element in the midst of the Yin of evening.

One can easily see that this lighting of a “Yang” candle, this “doubling” of the Yang of the lit candle by using it to light another is in keeping with the growing Yang of spring.  It shines in the darkness and dispels — but only partially — the Yin of the evening, just as the growing Yang dispels — but only gradually — the Yin element of spring, as Yang begins to move to dominance.

To say all of that, however, is to overthink the verse.  We are not supposed to work it out in ratios of Yin and Yang, like a mathematical formula.  Instead we are just supposed to feel the Yang of the candle flame dispelling — but only partially — the Yin interior darkness of evening.  Buson did not sit down and work this verse out in measures of Yin and Yang; it was already a part of his understanding of the universe, so when he wrote it, it came naturally and without intellection.  Yin and Yang are often new concepts to Westerners, however, so we must make it a part of our understanding of things, and then we will understand countless hokku without having to think it all out.  It will just come naturally to us as well.

With our electric lights in the modern world, we miss the rituals our ancestors used to know so well — the lighting of a candle or a lamp at evening.  It is an act filled with significance, and we see the effect in many old paintings where the light is only that of a candle.

Twilight used to be a time of calm and closeness for families, who would gather around the light of a candle or a lamp as the shadows of evening grew.

There is a very old-fashioned song, popular generations ago, that in spite of its romanticism, captures the quiet of this time of evening:

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low;
And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go.
Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes love’s old song,
Comes love’s old sweet song.

If we were to make a hokku of that, we would use only the “non-romantic” parts:

Flickering shadows
Softly come and go;
The twilight.

That would make a fitting verse to go with Buson’s hokku.



Russian hokku?  Yes, one can write hokku in many other languages than English, using the same principles as in English-language hokku.

The situation is complicated slightly by the fact that though Russians still use the correct old term, hokku, they unfortunately often combine it with confused ideas of “haiku” imported from the West.  Nonetheless, if they chose to do so, Russians could no doubt write excellent hokku, given the size of the country and the variety of Nature there.

I can see from my “statistics” page that some Russian person (or persons) reads my site regularly using translation software.  I am happy to see that, because I have always been fond of the Russian land and people — a great people who have made great contributions to art, music, and literature.  So if you are a Russian reader of my hokku site, feel free to send me a message via the “comments” link.  I would be happy to hear from you.



In the last posting, we looked at a verse by Issa, who tends to bring emotion into his hokku.

Today we will look at something more objective on the same “spring” topic, “the long day.”  As we saw in Issa’s example, he composed the verse by combining two “long” things — age and the lengthening of the day — then making a statement on them:  that even the lengthening of days as one grows old “brings tears.’

By contrast, here is a hokku by Taigi on the same topic:

Nagaki hi ya   me no tsukaretaru   umi no ue
Long  day ya eyes  ‘s  grow-weary  sea ‘s on

The long day;
Eyes grow weary
On the sea.

Remember that in old hokku, the reader was expected to know enough about the principles of hokku to “get” what the writer was saying.  That is not, however, often the case for modern readers on their first reading of a rather literalistic translation of some old hokku.  Modern readers need a verse to be a bit more explicit, which is also a difference in general between the Japanese language, which tends to vagueness, and the English language, which tends to be more direct and clear.

What Taigi is saying then, is this:

The long day;
My eyes grow weary
Looking at the sea.

We can see that this is very much like the verse by Issa in structure, but without Issa’s emotion.  It even uses the same method of combining two similar things. In Issa it was age and the lengthening day; in Taigi it is the long day and the sea.

Now one may ask how the long day and the sea are the same, and though an adult may not understand, any child can tell you that they are both “long.”  Look out at the sea and it goes on and on to the horizon; that vast stretch is in keeping in feeling with the perceived length of the day in spring, so much longer than the short days of winter, and growing ever longer.

So this verse simply combines two similar things, as did Issa, and makes a statement about them.  Taigi’s statement is “My eyes grow weary.”  Of course we could take out “my” and make the verse a more literal translation, but in English it is really necessary for completeness, and we want to make not only our translations of old hokku but also the new hokku we compose in English thoroughly English, not just reflections of Japanese language practice.

If we look at other hokku on the same topic, we find similar methodology in many verses, and Shiki, who began confusingly calling his verses “haiku” even while he was still writing hokku, used it constantly:

Sunahama ni   ashiatao nagaki   haru-hi kana
Sandy-beach on  footprings long   spring day kana

On the sandy beach,
A long line of footprints;
The spring day.

By now you should be practiced enough in this method to see what Shiki is doing.  He is just doing the same as Issa, the same as Taigi, in combining two things.  But unlike the two previous verses, he adds no statement, so this is not a “statement” hokku.  Instead it is just a standard hokku (in spite of Shiki’s terminology), which means setting, subject, and action:

On the sandy beach,  Subject

A long line of footprints;  Action (the writer sees the long line stretching into the distance)

The spring day.   Setting

We should note that usually in hokku, the “action” is something moving or changing; here it is simply the perceived change from the ordinarily blank sand to the presence of the footprints, which from our perspective is hardly “action” at all.  It is a kind of “passive” action, but one must really be careful with this kind of thing, because all to easily it can make a verse into simply a photograph.  And all too often a hokku as photograph is too static to be interesting.

For Shiki, however, it was a part of his personal approach to many hokku, which was to make them small sketches of Nature.  That is why so many of his verses — like this one — could be easily converted into Japanese block prints requiring no real movement.  In that lay the character of much of Shiki’s verse, but also often its shallowness, which we do not feel in this example in spite of the technique.

The “combination of similar things” technique can be applied to many things, and Shiki did so.  Keep in mind that even though Shiki is known as the “creator” of haiku, he has almost nothing in common with most modern haiku.  Actually he is just the petulant point at which hokku splits into modern haiku and modern hokku.  Shiki himself still wrote verses that generally qualify as hokku, and most modern haiku people are as much at a loss to understand the methodology Shiki inherited from hokku as they are to understand the greater body of old hokku verse.  Modern haiku is simply a verse form that in English, for all practical purposes, was created in the middle of the 20th century out of misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku combined with Western notions of poetry.

But back to Shiki’s use of hokku technique.  We see the “combining similar things” method also in this verse by him:

Hyakunin no      nimpu tsuchi horu   hi-naga kana
Hundred-men ‘s   laborers earth dig   day-long kana

A hundred workers
Digging the earth;
The long day.

To understand such a verse, we must think not as modern haiku thinks (when it does at all), but rather we must see it from the hokku perspective, which is precisely the “combine similar things” method.  Here Shiki’s two things are the “hundred workers” and “the long day.”

We must not be too literalistic about this or we will fail to understand the method.  It is not that a hundred workers are long in the same way that the day is long; instead, it is a perception of volume/extent.  To put it in the terms of a child, which is generally the best way to understand and approach hokku, “a hundred workers” is a “long” number of workers, just as “the spring day” is long.  The big, slow job at hand takes a lot of laborers, and the passage of the long spring day takes a lot of time.  And that is how one varies the method.

Shiki also gives us another verse in which the combination of similar things is more obvious:

Kawa ni sōte   yukedo hashi nashi   hi no nagaki
River at  along walking bridge is-not  day ‘s long

Following the river,
Still there is no bridge;
The long day.

The two combined similar things here are of course “the river” and “the long day.”  Shiki unites them by adding the effect of walking on and on but finding no bridge to cross.  That adds to the effect of the length of the river and the length of the day.

The knowledge of such techniques faded out in modern haiku, which claims descent from Shiki, but it is still very much alive in the practice of modern hokku, which gets it — just as Shiki did — from the long tradition of old hokku.  R. H. Blyth, of course, explained the latter verse in his four-volume series (though he did not name or clarify the general method as clearly as I have done here), but the pundits of modern haiku paid little or no attention to him in the mid-20th century, preferring instead to remake “haiku” in their own image, which was really all they could do, given that they understood so little of the aesthetics and methodology of the old hokku, which even Shiki used in his very conservative “haiku.”



One of the most obvious characteristics of the coming and advance of spring is the lengthening of the days.  The sun rises earlier and lingers later.  To those who live close to Nature this is a matter of great significance.  That is why in old hokku, “the long day” — the lengthening of the day in spring — was a fixed topic, what was called a “season word.”  Today we no longer use season words because the system became too complex and unwieldy, but we do still keep the importance of seasonal classification of hokku in our writing, and with it also the old topic — “the long day.”

How one approaches it depends on how one approaches hokku in general.  One can usually count on Issa to have a very “personal” approach, somewhat dangerous for Westerners, who are so attuned to “I,” “me,” and “my” that they tend to overpersonalize.  Nonetheless, Issa sometimes presents us with something interesting, as here:

Oinureba   hi no nagai ni mo   namida kana
Age-if          day’s length at too   tears     kana

Growing old,
Tears come also at
The length of days ….

We can improve that by smoothing it out a bit;

Growing old;
Even the lengthening day
Brings tears.

Old hokku tended to assume that the reader had a poetic nature and would intuit the point of the verse, which in modern times is not always the case — for many moderns, a poetic nature must be taught and acquired, or at least “educated.”

So what is Issa saying?  Well, as usual he stretches the bounds of hokku, which usually just presents us with an experience of Nature and lets us feel its significance for ourselves.

Here he is saying that he is “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”  He suffered in life, and understood, as Buddhism teaches, that underlying all human existence is a deep dissatisfaction, because ultimately no “thing” can satisfy us more than temporarily.  Issa had a very difficult childhood, and it left emotional scars which are readily visible in his verses.  On reading them, one often thinks of the “male” version of the old folk song that begins, “I am a man of constant sorrow; I’ve seen trouble all my days.”

Knowing that, we are ready to look again at Issa’s verse.  Whereas for many of us the lengthening of the days in spring is a cause for rejoicing, Issa knows that more daylight hours just bring more troubles.  We may find that hard to understand, because many of us have grown up in protected pockets of the world.  But in many places and in many times, life has been very difficult — and still is.  Our ancestors, who generally had to work remarkably hard for a living, knew this well.  They saw the harsh realities from which we have often been shielded.

Issa, then, is combining two things here.  First is the process of growing old, which brings its aches and pains and ailments along with the weakening of the senses.  We feel time in that.  And with that Issa gives us the lengthening of the day in spring, so we see that he is actually using an old hokku technique that we learned some time ago — the combining of things that are similar in feeling.  Here we have the “length” of life in old age and the length of the day.

And then Issa makes a comment on the two combined, which is that as one grows older, the lengthening of the day also may seem just one more cause for sorrow.  Not only does it bring the problems inherent in more daylight hours, but it also gives us a feeling of time stretched out to the point of pain, so that one begins to feel, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, “Sort of stretched…like butter scraped over too much bread .” (The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien)

Technically, then, this is a “statement” hokku made by combining two similar things and making an objective statement about the result.  Now one may question how objective Issa’s comment is here, but for him it was objective; it was simply the way he perceived things, and about that there is no quibbling.

Of course there is the more usual and more obviously objective approach to the subject of the lengthening of days, but I will save that for another little talk.