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

“ 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.”  (

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.


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