In the last posting we reviewed Yin and Yang in hokku, and introduced the two kinds of contrast.  This latter is important in itself, so I shall say more about it.

Hokku may exhibit either:
1.  Harmony of contrast
2.  Harmony of similarity

Harmony of contrast is the inclusion of elements that are quite opposite to one another — something that is hot against something that is cool; something wet against something dry; something unmoving against something moving.

Harmony of similarity includes things that are similar in character (again in terms of Yin and Yang).  For example, we may have a crow and evening (here the similarity is in darkness); we may have a child and springtime (here the similarity is in “youngness” or “freshness”; we may have billowing clouds and the sail on a boat (similarity in “swelling”). All these are things similar in character.

When we have a hokku including similar things, we must be careful not to understand this as simile (meaning one thing in a verse is said to be “like” another) or metaphor (meaning one thing in verse “is” another).  The difference is very important.

If we say, as did Robert Burns,

O, my luve’s like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June.

we are using simile — one thing is openly said to be like another.

In hokku, however, we do not say one thing is “like” another.  Instead, when we put two “similar” things in a hokku — for example an old man and the evening (both “aged” things with increasing Yin), we say that one thing reflects another.

The difference between simile and internal reflection is that in simile, the mind of the reader is pulled between two images — a young woman and  a red rose.  In internal reflection, however, the two similar elements reflect and complement and enhance one another.

In this site I shall treat Shiki — who really marked the shift from the hokku to new kinds of brief verse — as a writer of hokku, because in fact he maintained the form and technique, the seasonal connection and the focus on Nature.

He wrote:

Though the hole in the stone lantern —
The sea.

Look at all these elements:
1.  Coolness (Yin) — cold is Yin.
2.  A hole (Yin) — absence is Yin.
3.  Stone (Yin) — immobility is Yin.
4.  Sea (Yin) — water is Yin.

All of these “like” elements reflect one another, creating an airy hokku filled with coolness, in spite of the fact that this is a summer verse!  It is pleasant to experience these “cool” things in summer.

There are many reasons for an experience that strikes us as significant enough to make a hokku, but a major contributing factor is often the presence of such internal reflection in the elements of an experience.  When we have such reflection, we say the elements of the verse are harmonious, that they work together to create a unified experience.

But again, we must remember that in hokku there are two kinds of harmony — the harmony of similar things and the harmony of dissimilar things.  That is why in summer, verses which have internally reflecting Yang elements (heat, dryness, roughness, brightness, etc.) are harmonious, but so are hokku with internally reflecting dissimilar and contrary elements (a spring of water against the heat of day, shade against sunlight, a fluttering bird in the still silence of a forest).

Everything I have discussed here is very important to an understanding of hokku and its aesthetics.  Next time you are out for a walk, look for harmonies of similarity and harmonies of contrast.  Eventually you will see that this is just another way of describing the changes and transformations and interplay of the two universal elements, Yin and Yang.

This concept is very ancient.  In Daoist cosmology, first there is only unity, The ONE.  The ONE separates into two — the primal opposites of Yin and Yang, and the interplay of these two in all proportions and combinations then creates the “Ten Thousand Things,” by which is meant everything that exists, the cell, the flower, the world, the star, the galaxy, the universe.



All hokku are seasonal hokku, being written and marked (as practiced today) with one of the four seasons.  That comes from hokku having originated in a temperate climate.  In other climates this may vary to a summer season, a rainy season, and a winter season; to a spring, summer, and fall without winter; or  to even just a dry season and a wet season.

I am in a temperate zone with a climate similar to that of Japan (and of Britain), so hokku as I teach it has four seasons.  Those individuals living in areas with fewer seasons should adapt their hokku to those areas.

Because hokku is seasonal verse, we write according to the present season, and not only that, we read hokku according to the season as well.  That is to keep us in harmony with Nature.  Occasionally we will use out-of-season verses for learning, but in doing so we must remember that these are exceptions to the standard practice when writing and reading.

But on to summer hokku.  We cannot fully understand the aesthetics behind summer hokku without a knowledge of the two elements of Yin and Yang that comprise the universe.  These are qualities that are opposite, but which combine and work in contrary harmony throughout all things.

Yin is cold, silent, motionless, wet, dark, passive.
Yang is warm, noisy, moving, dry, bright, and active.

The entire year is a cycle of change from Yin to Yang and back again:

Winter is deepest Yin.  When Yin reaches its maximum it begins to turn to Yang.  As Yang grows, winter changes to spring.  As the Yang of spring grows further, it changes to summer, and finally it reaches a point of maximum Yang — the height of summer, at which it begins to change to Yin.  As Yin grows, summer fades into autumn (fall), and as Yin grows even more as Yang declines, autumn dissolves into Winter, and Yin grows to its maximum until the cycle repeats.

The same cycle happens in a day.  The middle of night is Yin, which begins to change to Yang.  Dawn is a mixture of Yin and Yang, and Yang grows until midday, when it reaches its maximum and begins to decline into afternoon as Yin increases, then evening, then night again.

This is the cycle too of life, including human life.  Birth is comparable to the beginning of spring; youth is the height of spring, which fades into the summer of maturity; then comes the decline into autumn, which is like the late afternoon of the day.  And then come evening and night, old age and death.

One will see these cycles repeated again and again in hokku, and when we know their correspondences, we will begin to grasp an important part of the aesthetics of the hokku.

Summer, then, is a season when Yang grows gradually to its height before beginning its decline into autumn.  In the first part of summer, Yin declines as Yang increases.  In the second part, Yin grows as Yang begins its decline.

The most obvious characteristics of summer then, are the Yang characteristics of heat and dryness.  This is just the opposite of the Yin characteristics — cold and dampness — of winter.  So we can say that both summer and winter are the “extreme” seasons, while both spring and summer are the “balanced” seasons in which both Yin and Yang work out their proportions without extremes.

That was a rather long but essential introduction.  But knowing all that, we now know that because summer is one of the “extreme” seasons, its hokku are likely to often be characterized by opposites.  That is why Yin qualities are frequently so important in summer hokku.  It is Yin that brings out the “extreme” character of the season.  So we only realize fully the importance of water (Yin) on the hottest and driest days of summer.  The same may be said of the coolness (Yin) of a breeze on a blazing hot summer day.  And there are further interesting but opposing combinations of the two, for example the sweltering heat (Yang) of a summer night (Yin).

It is important in discussing these combinations and permutations to realize that the balances and proportions of Yin and Yang are constantly changing and are not absolutes.  There are Yin elements to be found even in the height of summer, and we often take advantage of these to set off the intensity of the Yang elements of heat and light and dryness.

I recall when in my college days an instructor asked us all a question about how one character in a play acted as a “foil” to another.  It quickly became obvious that none of us knew what he meant by that, assuming mistakenly that he meant a “foil” in the sense of a fencing sword.  But the use of the term originates in a time when thin, bright metal foil was placed behind an inferior gemstone in a setting to enhance its brightness and make it stand out.  One thing being a “foil” to another, then, means one thing emphasizes the qualities of another, makes another stand out more strongly.  That is how we use Yin as a foil to the Yang of summer:

They have rolled
Out from the leafy shade–
The hot melons.

Kyorai wrote that.  We can see it does what we have just talked about; it combines the Yin of the shade and leaves and the watery melons with the heat characteristic of summer.  We feel the heat even more, seeing the Yin, watery melons that have grown hot in the intense sunlight, and the leafy shade from which they have rolled.

There is also another way of emphasing the heat — by “pouring it on,” that is, by increasing the extreme of heat by using something that is in harmony with, rather than contrasting with it.  This is using harmony of “like” things rather than harmony of contrasting things.  Hyōka wrote:

There’s a wife
And children in my house;
The heat!

The activity and wants and chatter of the children, the wife with her remarks and tasks and complaints, all combine in the hot little house to make the heat even more intense for the man, who feels that if he were alone, things would somehow seem cooler.  It is this sense of “crowding” when one wants space and coolness that is in harmony with the heat of summer.  That is why, for example, a mass of buzzing flies on a hot day would also be in harmony with the summer heat, making it even more irritating.

An extreme may be found even in the intense light of summer, as in this verse by Kyorai:

Stones and trees
Are glaring bright —
The heat!

That reminds me of a beach I once visited in the height of summer, and the light reflected off water and sand was so intense one had to squint.

Summer, then, gives us an opportunity to work with extremes, with Yang modified only slightly to greatly by the addition of this or that Yin element.  That does not, however, mean that all summer hokku must be harsh.  Summer has its harshness, but its pleasantness also.

Here is a summer verse by Kitō which nonetheless is heavy with Yin:

Little fish
Carried backwards;
The clear water.

Looking into the flowing clear water on a summer’s day, we see the tiny fish, tails wriggling, being pulled slowly downstream in the current up which they are facing.   The predominant element here is the Yin of the water, but we feel the summer in its clearness and in the wriggling of the fish.

Summer too has its more “Yin” days and its more “Yang” days.  Everything is relative, and it is the wonderful changes wrought by these differences in proportion that make things all the more interesting.

And so we return to our original premise:  All hokku are seasonal hokku.  At base, each verse is about a season.  So summer hokku should express the summer in some way.  And they should do it through sensation, through touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and seeing.

We must remember always to keep our hokku simple, our sensations direct.  Deal in real things, with water and stones and wind and flies and leaves; omit thoughts and abstractions and commentary, and do not try to write “poems.”  Instead, our goal in hokku is to express the season through sensation — through sensory experience — and if we succeed in doing that, the poetry will take place inside us, instead of on the page.

That is how hokku works.


“Old” readers here will quickly notice the change in appearance of this site.  I hope it may aid eyes wearied by the computer screen.

With this change of “look” and of season, I want to take a few moments for a general review of this site and its subject matter for new readers.

First, of course, this is a site for instruction in how to write the hokku — that remarkably condensed form of brief verse, set in the context of Nature and the seasons — that flourished before the 20th century cast it aside as inappropriate to the speed and goals and materialism of “modern” life — as though life could somehow exist outside Nature and the changing seasons.

As in the past, I shall continue to explain, through example, how the hokku is written in English, and what its aesthetics, so different from what we in the West know as “poetry,” are.  A diligent reader here will over time pick up the essential foundations for the practice of writing hokku, and if these basic elements are applied to actually taking up the verse form for one’s self, anyone with reasonable skill and innate taste should be able not only to write passable hokku, but occasionally quite good hokku.  Most important in this regard is understanding the spirit and the aesthetic behind hokku, and that is something one cultivates and develops over time through immersion in the subject and continued practice.

Beyond that, I often discuss here what is more commonly regarded as poetry in the English and other languages, verses that have kept (or should have kept) their appeal for one reason or another.  And I add to those excerpts from prose that often — sometimes unexpectedly — prove poetic in themselves.

I approach poetry here on an unaccustomed path, one in which it relates directly to daily life and to the kind of spirituality one finds in hokku — a spirituality in which the self of the writer and of the reader disappears in that which is written about.  And as Giacomo Leopardi wrote in his poem L’Infinito, “The Infinite,”

Così tra questa immensità s’annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.

Thus through this immensity my thought is drowned;
and shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea.



I was remiss in not posting a hokku for Vesākha, the remembrance of the Birth, the Enlightenment Nibbana (Nirvana) and the Passing Away (Parinibbana) of the Buddha.

Vesākha takes place at the time of the full moon in May.

In hokku it is generally best not to be too overtly religious or “preachy,” so this verse by Chora fits quite well:

A mountain temple;
No one comes to venerate
The Nibbana picture.

It is an isolated temple in the hills, too far for people — who are or think they are busy in any case — to come and make their devotions before the picture of the Buddha’s passing — his final entry into Nibbana.

It reminds me a little of Memorial Day, when so many people think they have better things to do than to pay respects to the memory of their relatives who have passed on.

Nonetheless, in regard to the hokku, the Buddha is still the Buddha, recognized or not, with or without pilgrims.  It reminds one of the ancient saying,

Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.

“Called or not called, the god will be there.”



It is time to ease into summer hokku.

As a kind of introduction, here is one of the most evocative excerpts in English literature, from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, filled with transience, the sense that all things are ephemeral and passing and slip like water through our attempts to grasp them.  One must read it slowly and savor the words:

I have been here before,’ I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as is given us once or twice in a life-time, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

That day, too, I had come not knowing my destination. It was Eights Week. Oxford — submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in — Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days — such as that day — when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.

Originally, Waugh had written, “exhaled the soft vapours of a thousand years of learning,” but his emendation of the line evokes precisely the spirit one finds in such a place, where seemingly the young never grow old.  But they do, as the rest of the book informs us.

I have combined both the original and later emended versions in this excerpt.

And now for summer hokku.



When this verse by Issa was written it was an autumn hokku.  In the United States, however, it is a verse for the end of May — for Memorial Day, which used to be called “Decoration Day”:

There is no improving on Blyth’s translation, even though he reversed the order of the original:

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

Because the dog is old, he is in harmony with the graves of people of the past.  And again because he is old, he has been to this cemetery before, and knows the way.  It shows us too how the dog is part of the family — and so is related, we may say, to those whose graves are being visited.

Presented (in America) as a spring verse, this hokku would also have a harmony of opposites — the freshness of the end of the month of May, but with it old remembrance of things and people past — and a memorial visit to their graves.



R. H. Blyth recognized even in his day that the hokku had fallen on hard times.  He speaks with favor of Bashō, of Buson, of Issa, and even speaks of the “objective dryness yet pregnancy of Shiki” (who began haiku as distinct from hokku), but he speaks also of  “the decadence of all later writers” (of haiku).

So much for the experimentation and change that came after Shiki in haiku — the experimentation and change that is also characteristic of modern haiku in English, which has continued, though in another language, the decadence of verse after Shiki.

Blyth tells us that Bashō’s “Way” can “hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it.”  Certainly I have found no one in the modern haiku movement on that path.

In speaking of what came after hokku and the conservative haiku of Shiki that was often indistinguishable from hokku, Blyth says quite honestly and bluntly,

…I feel that very little would be lost if all the haiku of modern times were tacitly forgotten.”

I feel precisely the same about modern haiku in English and other European languages.  One would like to erase all the mistakes and misperceptions and misunderstandings and foolishness foisted on the English-speaking public by the modern haiku community in the entire second half of the 20th century, a period which unfortunately set the stage for the abysmal kinds of verse written today as “haiku,” a period in which the genuine hokku and its aesthetics were seemingly deliberately obscured by the Western founders of modern haiku, who, not understanding the real hokku, simply chose to re-make it  as they wished it to be, then foisted the result on the naïve general public. 

Blyth tells us precisely what he thinks of this abandonment of the Way of Bashō:

Its disuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings.”

Blyth summarized his two-volume History of Haiku by saying,

Haiku since Shiki [that is, since about the turn of the 20th century] has been, like the world itself, in a state of confusion.

That confusion is abundantly evident on modern haiku sites.  One need only read the advice given by the “poets” there to novice writers, and one quickly sees that they really have not the slightest idea what they are doing or why, but in any case the best one can say of the deplorable results is that they are mercifully brief excuses for verse.  The “learning” and “teaching” of “haiku” on such sites is simply a classic illustration of the blind leading the blind.

Everyone in modern haiku makes up his or her own mind as to what constitutes a haiku and how to write it.  Blyth foresaw that decades ago, because the attitude already existed in his time:

The confusion of our modern times seems greater than ever before because people speak by themselves only, not by humanity.

It is the “Me” Period in which we live, not just the “Me Generation.”  And nothing so exemplifies modern haiku as this confused and rootless emphasis on “me,” on the individual as “poet,” on the necessity for constant change in verse, the same kind of constant change demanded by the short attention span of a two-year-old child.

I have watched the low rise of the modern haiku and its near-immediate devolution over many decades, and I see no trace of hope for the arising of anything worthwhile within it at present.  Almost without exception, those who practice it are devoid of an inherent sense of poetry (paradoxically, because those who write “haiku” today seem more than ever obsessively concerned about being perceived as “poets.” and as writing “poetry”).

I can say with Blyth that very little would be lost if all the haiku and haiku Internet sites and fora and journals of modern times were tacitly forgotten.  Given how little they are noticed by the general public in any case, their absence would likely pass without comment, and modern haiku could go into the dustbin of history, forgotten and unmourned.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

If any one has any doubts about my attitude toward modern haiku, I think this brief posting should dispel them.  

I want to remind everyone that I do not teach or practice or advocate modern haiku; I do not belong to any “haiku” group of any kind; and I have nothing whatsoever to do with modern haiku, aside from deploring its accompanying nonsense and mediocrity and triviality, and how its self-made pundits have actively contributed to the obscurity and near disappearance of the real hokku as practiced from its beginnings to the time of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.



When I began teaching hokku on the Internet many long years ago, at first I had crowds of people flocking into my classes.  They came largely from the modern haiku community.  Unfortunately, however, most of them really did not want to learn hokku.  Instead, they wanted to present a few of their verses and be told that what they were already writing was great.

It wasn’t great.  And it wasn’t hokku.  And when I told them that, they promptly lost interest and left, often with a few choice words about “tyranny” and how “You cannot tell ME how to write.”

Paradoxically, they were correct.  I could not tell them how to write, simply because they had not come to learn, and so would not listen.  Instead they wanted instant success and praise, and they did not want to have to spend time learning the principles and techniques and aesthetics of the hokku.   So they quickly went back to modern haiku, where those who know nothing whatsoever about writing hokku or even legitimate haiku will quickly find someone who will praise their awkward and mediocre verses.

The whole edifice of modern haiku is virtually based on this system of unlearned beginners who are too proud to learn how to write, and cannot bear being students rather than immediate “poets.”  And no matter how deplorable the verses written by such people, they will always find others who write equally deplorable verses and who will, with unfailing bad taste, be there to praise and encourage one on to further depths of mediocrity.  They have an unspoken agreement among them:  “I’ll say you are a poet if you’ll say I am.”

To speak of learning to write modern haiku is really an oxymoron.  Most people just pick up ideas here and there, from this book or that Internet site, and then go on to write as they please.  Really, what else can one do in a community where there is no common definition of what haiku is or how to write it?

What happens is that people end up writing little brief verses that have little or nothing to do with hokku, and also little or nothing to do with what Shiki originally intended haiku to be.

But the one saving grace in all this for such individuals is that the modern haiku community enables anyone, no matter how unskilled and unprepared, to write verses and have them immediately accepted by others in the community.  After all, if no one can say for certain what a haiku is or how to write it, that makes the individual the arbiter, so a haiku becomes whatever any given individual declares “haiku” to be.  That is how deplorably degenerate the modern haiku community on the Internet and in print has become.

When I talk plainly like this, those in modern haiku often think I somehow want to “convert” them to writing hokku.  Not at all.  I think people who are satisfied with modern haiku are very poor candidates for hokku, and I have found from my teaching that in fact that generally proves to be the case.  They are so full of their own notions, so full of the desire to be seen as “poets” by others, so irritated when their mediocre verses are subjected to legitimate scrutiny, that it would be impossible for them to really learn hokku until they change their attitude toward themselves and toward the world.

That is why I am not really interested in students from modern haiku.  I already know what they are like, and they do not make good students of hokku.  In spite of this, many of them regularly read this site for “tips’ to apply to their haiku, though I repeatedly caution against mixing the two forms of verse.  But they don’t listen.

That is their choice.  I have no interest in contributing to their confusion.  Instead, I prefer to teach those who really want to learn hokku, and though their numbers are fewer, I have always preferred quality to quantity.

As for modern haiku, it is even worse now than it was decades ago.  As Shakespeare wrote, “‘Tis an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.”



We just looked at a verse for the time when spring is nearing its end:

Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Today, by contrast, we shall look at a verse on the other side of the seasonal divide:

Clouds appear,
Yet no rain falls;
The heat!

In the first verse we still feel the gentleness and abundance of spring, when the forces of Yang are growing, but softened by the Yin of the rain.  But in high summer we come to the time when Yang predominates, and it manifests as heat and dryness.  That second verse is by Kōkyō, and he gives us a sense of the harshness of Yang when unmitigated by Yin, just as in midwinter we feel the harshness of the cold Yin unmitigated by the warmth of Yang.

Both heat and cold are extremes, and though they make for unpleasantness and discomfort, they also give us effective hokku because these extremes of heat and cold create strong sensations — sensory experiences — and sensory experience is the basis of hokku.

When using old hokku — which are really Japanese verses — in learning how to write modern hokku, we should generally forget completely that they are Japanese.   Instead we should apply them to the country where we live.

That is why when I read Kōkyō’s

Clouds appear,
Yet no rain falls;
The heat!

I always think of an American farmer looking upward at the hard blue sky in which a few wisps of whitish cloud appear, only to pass over and dissolve without a single drop of rain falling onto the parched soil.  And yes, I know it is a bit old-fashioned, but I always have the feeling of a windmill in the background, completely silent and still in the oppressive heat of a day without even the hint of a breeze.  That latter element by itself could be used in a summer hokku:

The windmill
Silent and unmoving;
The heat!

In such a verse we feel the heat in the stillness of the windmill, which, we could say, “reflects” the intense sensation of heat through its unmoving silence.  That is how hokku works; we combine things that work in harmony to express the season through sensory experience.

I hope readers here — at least long-time readers — are beginning to see how essentially simple hokku is.  If we abandon all the intellection, all our notions of what “poetry” should be, and just go for the basics of season and sensation — an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature — then we will be going in the right direction for hokku.  Anything else will take us away from hokku.

It is worth mentioning that the principles of hokku, unlike those of modern haiku, can be clearly expressed and taught.  And when one gets away from those principles, one is no longer writing hokku even if one happens to use the outward form of hokku for such a verse.  That clarity and simplicity in our understanding of hokku and its aesthetics and principles and techniques explains why we in hokku do not have the constant bickering and “intellectual” argument one finds among writers of other kinds of short verse.  We know what the aesthetics of hokku are, we know what the form is, we know how a hokku is written and what a hokku is to be written “about” — so that leaves nothing for pointless quibbles and mind games.

Why, then, is such abstract bickering endemic on modern haiku sites?  It is essentially because those in modern haiku view what they write as “poetry” and themselves as “poets” in the Western sense; they write so many different kinds of verse, all called haiku, that the modern haiku community as a whole has no overall unifying aesthetic or purpose.  And that underlying uncertainty and dissension becomes obvious in discussions on modern haiku by those within it.

That is another major difference between hokku and modern haiku.  I cannot help pondering this difference whenever I see the wordy, abstract quarreling that takes place on modern haiku sites.  It always makes me happy for the peace of hokku.



Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Beginning with the premise that a hokku is a sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the season, we can see that every hokku is really a verse about a season, whether written at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a season.  So though we do not use “titles” as such in hokku, nonetheless every hokku really has one of four “titles”:  Spring, Summer, Autumn (or Fall) and Winter.

We already know that a hokku is a sensory experience.  But how do we extract that experience from everything else that is happening at the time?  It is not difficult.  We look for the essentials of the experience.  In the hokku above, for example, there is the cloudburst, there is the warm rain, and there is the time of year — spring nearing its end.  That is all we require.

The interesting thing is that when we put these elements together, they have a sense of significance far beyond what each would have individually.  Let’s look again:

Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Everything here is in harmony.  The rain is a part of spring, but its warmth tells us that spring is soon to give way to heat of summer, when the warmth will increase and the rain will diminish or be absent.  So each element by itself, or even two of the elements together, is not sufficient to give us the whole picture.  It takes the combination of all to be effective.

We must, however, know when to stop.  We could add more of what is happening at the time, but in this case more would be less — the weight of detail would become too much, and would detract from the simplicity and directness of the experience.  That is why hokku are very brief.  Hokku, essentially, are just the fewest words necessary to convey a “whole” experience without detracting from that whole or adding unnecessary elements to it.

If one ponders this and puts it into application in writing verses, one will readily advance in writing hokku.  A hokku is not just a verse that happens to be brief.  There is a reason.  Nor is it just a verse that happens to be divided into two parts.  There is also a reason for that.  Make it shorter, make it longer, and it loses both ways.



A hokku is an experience of Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of a season. Everything else about hokku — the two parts, the punctuation and capitalization, the techniques — exist simply to convey that experience with clarity and simplicity and effectiveness.

Because it is an experience, hokku generally omits thoughts and commentaries about an experience, preferring the experience itself, with no frills or ornamentation.

Looked at this way, hokku is the most austere of verse forms.  It is like the best of Shaker furniture, designed for a purpose, with all that is extraneous omitted.

The job of the writer of hokku, then, is just to convey such an experience to the reader without “getting in the way” of the experience.  That means there is no room for preaching or moralizing, or for “souping up” or decorating a verse.  The best writer of hokku is one who is not noticed at all, leaving only the experience.

That is why I have always de-emphasized the notion of the writer of hokku as “poet,” which is a completely unnecessary and misleading title.  The writer of hokku is just someone who allows Nature to speak through him.  That is only possible when the writer gets out of the way, giving up all pretensions to being a “poet” or “poetic.’

That is why if you want to make a name for yourself in the literary world or on the Internet, you should write other kinds of verse.  Hokku is only for those who take up the path of humility.  It is a kind of contemplative verse, meaning it is verse that takes away thoughts and ego and leaves one only with the pure essence of a thing or experience.

Spring rain;
Between the trees is seen
A path to the sea

Otsuji’s verse shows the poverty and simplicity of hokku.  It is only when one is willing to become that simple that one can take up the practice of hokku.  If one has greater aspirations in verse, one should not even bother with the hokku.  Hokku is really a verse form fitting for hermits and monastics and ascetics, people who are done with all the nonsense of the world and who just want to get directly at

“That dearest freshness deep down things”

as Gerard Manley Hopkins so aptly put it.



Shiki, the “founder” of haiku as separate from hokku, wrote a verse that has (at least) two possible interpretations:

The first is as a hokku would be written:

A tub of indigo
Poured out;
The waters of spring.

Seen this way, someone involved in dyeing cloth has dumped out a tubful of indigo dye.  The dark, greenish liquid runs into and tinges the little rivulets and pools of flowing, springtime water a deeper hue, now that the frozen winter has passed (objects dyed in indigo, by the way, do not turn the deep “indigo” blue until some time after they are removed from the dye liquid).

The second way of understanding this verse is not at all hokku-like, because it makes it a metaphor.  Blyth has altered the verse slightly in his translation, making the “tub” a barrel and the “waters of spring” a river:

A barrel of indigo,
Poured out and flowing:
The spring river.

Seen thus, Shiki’s verse is no longer hokku.  Instead it is a metaphor used more as simile.  The river of spring looks like a barrel of dark, greenish indigo poured out and flowing.  This is the same technique used in the popular old poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor….

Both ways of reading Shiki’s verse are poetry in some sense, but only the first is the poetry of hokku.

In the first, we deal with the real world, with a poured-out tub of indigo running into and tinting the waters of spring.  In the second we are in the world of fantasy, where a river is no longer a river but a giant barrel of indigo poured out and flowing.  Those who do not know how indigo dye functions are even likely to visualize the liquid flowing from the barrel as deep blue, when actually it is greenish and only turns blue in items dyed with it that are exposed to air for some time — a chemical process.

Hokku does not use the second method because it takes us away from reality and into fantasy.  It mixes two images in our minds, and the mind must jump back and forth between them.  Usually the “fantasy” image wins our attention.

That does not mean the second does not create a vivid image and is not poetry in a conventional sense.  But it does mean that the “poetry” of the second verse is not the poetry of the first, which deals with the “real world” and does not mix the real world with poetic fantasy.

That is one of the distinctions between hokku and other kinds of verse.  Hokku prefers the “thing itself” to metaphor or simile that alters and ultimately detracts from the thing, no matter how conventionally poetic the result in the latter case.






Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
Soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
Freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
Wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Now that day has wearied me,
My ardent longing
Shall greet the starry night,
Friendly, like a tired child.

Hände lasst von allem Tun,
Stirn vergiss du alles Denken,
Alle meine Sinne nun
Wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Hands, cease from all your deeds,
Brow, forget all your thinking;
All my senses now
Wish to sink in slumber.

Und die Seele unbewacht
Will in freien Flügen schweben,
Um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
Tief und tausendfach zu leben.

And the soul, unobserved,
Will soar in free flight
Into the enchanted circle of night
To live deep and thousandfold.

( von Hermann Hesse)


Newcomers here often wonder why I use the word “hokku” for the small “Nature” verses I often discuss.  I use that word because it is the very word that has been used to describe them for over 300 years.  It is the word used by Bashō and Gyōdai, Taigi, and Buson, and all the other writers up to the time near the end of the 19th century when a journalist named Shiki began calling what he wrote “haiku” instead, though many of his verses were still essentially hokku in all but name.

As a result, over time a lot of people began speaking of those earlier, preceding centuries of old hokku as “haiku” too.  But I do not do that, and there are very good reasons.  First, as I have already said, it is not the “real” name of the verse, not what the writers of these verses themselves called them.  But even more important, after Shiki the “haiku” began to be written in so many different ways that it grew more and more unlike the hokku.  Today the word “haiku” is just a foggy and fuzzy umbrella term used to describe a great number of kinds of brief verse.  It has become so vague as to be nearly meaningless, and it certainly does not clearly or accurately describe the kind of verses written in the centuries before Shiki, nor does it describe the hokku we write in that old tradition today.

I believe that in order to teach something, one must know precisely what one is teaching.  One must be able to describe and explain it so the student will understand.  That is why I use the historically correct term hokku to apply to the kind of verse I teach and discuss.  It is the same word that was used by all who wrote it, and I can think of no good reason to change that.  I have seen what happens when people do try to change it, and the result is just hopeless confusion.

Nonetheless, everyone knows that there is a lot of new brief verse out there that is called “haiku.”  I always tell people that hokku is NOT haiku, and historically that is quite accurate.  But more important, hokku has its own standards and principles and aesthetics.  These have been largely forgotten or abandoned by most people who write haiku.  For many of these people, haiku is just a modern brief poem about the length of a hokku, but without most or all the characteristics of a hokku.  Often a modern haiku cannot be distinguished in any way from other short poems of roughly the same length that people do not call or consider to be haiku.

To avoid all that confusion, I just keep to the original, correct term.  That saves a lot of bother for everyone.  Fortunately, hokku is also the term still used by scholars when they want to be technically correct.  So even they know that using “haiku” when what is really meant is “hokku” can be confusing.

My attitude toward modern haiku is that it began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku by Western writers who mistakenly thought the hokku was like Western poetry, just shorter.  That is why a lot of modern haiku can hardly be distinguished from other short poems that are not haiku.  Some people actually prefer this “hybrid” kind of verse, and if they do that is fine.  But I do object when they try to convince people that what they write is in the same tradition as the old hokku writers, or when they try to convince people to call hokku “haiku.”  That is simply adopting confusion instead of clarity.  Here I only teach hokku.

Of course many people who write experimental kinds of modern haiku consider the hokku, without any good reason, outdated. They think that verse forms must always be changed and transformed and turned into something else to be any good.  But I think that is a foolish notion.  If something works well at what it is supposed to do, there is no reason to change it.  And change just for the sake of change is pointless.

Of course the way we write hokku today is not exactly how the old writers did it, because they wrote in Japanese and we write in English.  But we still follow their old techniques, their old aesthetics, and we still look to Nature and the changing seasons as the focus of our verse, just as they did.  That is why we can speak of a continuity between the old hokku and new hokku.

Learning hokku is more difficult than learning haiku because one cannot just make up one’s own rules.  There are certain guidelines we should follow, or else a verse will not be a real hokku.  But once we learn the guidelines and techniques and principles, then we can begin to write with real freedom, because we will have absorbed the spirit behind all the guidelines that is the real essence of the hokku.



Shiki (the “founder” of haiku as different from hokku) wrote a verse that is really a hokku in structure and effect:

A butterfly;
The pilgrim’s child
Lags behind.

Like old hokku, this demands an intuitive leap by the reader.  One must instantly recognize why these particular elements have been combined.

The parent is one of those pious Buddhist ladies who is off on a walking pilgrimage with others from shrine to shrine, and she has brought her child on her journey.  But along the path there is a butterfly, and the child lags behind, absorbed in its appearance and its fluttering.

Given the flexibility of the Japanese language,  we can make the butterflies many, and we can even multiply the number of children.  Number is not specified in the original.  But in English we have to choose, because English is a more precise language.

It is pleasant to think of the child among a group of spring butterflies, but it is also pleasant to think of it being held by the presence of only one.

If all writers of modern haiku had followed the example of such a verse, modern haiku would not be in its present chaotic state.  But of course then they would really be writing hokku.



When a writer of hokku writes about himself or herself, he does so as one would if writing about something else — as one would write about a tree, or a hawk circling in the sky.

Baishitsu wrote:

te ni toreba   haya niko-niko to    uri-hina
Hand in taking  soon smiling to sale-doll

Picking it up
And already smiling;
The doll for sale.

This is one of those verses that gives a quite different picture in the West than in Japan.  The doll the writer is holding is nothing like a “Western” doll, not a baby for little girls to play with.  Instead it is a formally-dressed little adult who, along with other similar dolls, will be displayed on shelves or a special stand during the Japanese celebration called “Hina Matsuri,”  “The Doll Festival.”

Some of these old “dolls” — which are really handmade figures and not playthings — were genuine works of art, and a traditional Japanese looking at one would be flooded with memories of childhood and sisters and all such things.  The Hina Matsuri was a girls’ festival, and came in March; the boy’s festival, with which carp were associated, came in early May.

Note that nothing is said in the verse of all the applied associations, which is in keeping with how hokku works.  We do not tell the reader how or why to respond to a verse.  The reader just reads it and responds.

Of course in describing such a verse to English-language readers, we have to load it down with explanation, which is unfortunate but necessary.  Otherwise we would likely think it a verse written by a woman or possibly a somewhat feminine man.

Then too, without all this added explanation one would have no idea that this is a spring verse.  Of course if written in English, such a hokku would be marked with the season in which it was written.

In any case, the dates of both these festivals have now passed us by, and in only a short while we shall be making the transition from spring hokku to summer hokku.



The practice of hokku is a lifelong process of learning.  This is true whether one is a student or teacher, because even the teacher is also a lifelong student.

Today I got a valuable insight into one reason why some people misunderstand and reject the notion of a connection between hokku and “Zen,” something I usually just call the inherent connection between hokku and spirituality.

This particular category of misperception lies in thinking that the writers of old hokku consciously intended to transmit an experience of “enlightenment” —  that their intention was to pass such a “Zen” experience on to the reader, much as a student of traditional Zen is given a koan — a paradoxical word problem — by a Zen teacher in order to lead the student to enlightenment.

The truth is that such a conscious intent was unlikely to have been held by the writers of old hokku.  And the fact is that hokku does not transmit the same level or quality of enlightenment that one achieves through Buddhist practice.

What one does find in hokku is a lesser analog to that greater enlightenment, a “little enlightenment” that is both momentary and transitory, a temporary removal of the boundary between self and other.  And the fact is that in the greater number of cases, this transmission of the “little enlightenment” experience happened not because of any conscious intent on the part of the writer of hokku, but rather because that writer worked from a culture that provided him (or her) with the unconscious “paradoxical, non-egoistic, universal, democratic basis of Mahayana Buddhism,” as R. H. Blyth rightly puts it.  Because hokku and the other contemplative arts were steeped in this unconscious aesthetic like fishes in water, it happened that the hokku — which manifested this aesthetic in a condensed and concentrated form — was and still is remarkably capable of permitting and transmitting this “little enlightenment.”

We cannot assume it was the conscious intent of the writer.  Not all writers of old hokku had a direct connection with the Zen sect, but all had this unconscious cultural background, just as Americans have a shared cultural background that is also largely unconscious but quite perceptible to people of other nations as something distinctively American.

But that was old hokku.  It is no longer true of Japanese culture as a whole, and of course this spiritual approach to verse is something quite unfamiliar to most in the West.  That is why in talking about the intimate relationship between spirituality and hokku, we must now speak of it quite openly and plainly when teaching hokku today — which was something generally not done or necessary in the old days of hokku — otherwise the crucial part of the hokku aesthetic — which is precisely this spiritual background — will be missing, and without it, it is impossible to understand or read or write hokku with any degree of perception.