In hokku, as I have said many times, we do not use metaphor (saying one thing is another) or simile (saying one thing is like another).  There is a specific reason for that.  It is that in hokku, metaphor and simile draw the mind in two different directions, and two separate images compete for the reader’s attention.  This is contrary to the very intense, aware focus that hokku as taught here requires.

That does not mean, of course, that metaphor and simile are inappropriate for other kinds of writing and other occasions.  Sometimes they can be quite effective, and indeed at times may be the best way of expressing something.

There is an old and rather odd book written by a woman named Grace Duffie Boylan.  It came to be in 1918 and was published in 1919, and it purports to be the after-death communications of her son, killed in action in Europe — in Flanders — in the First World War — that shadow time of immense grief and suffering.  It is titled Thy Son Liveth.

I don’t intend to take up the issue here of how authentic the communications in the book may or may not be, because what I really want to talk about now is an exquisite use of simile in the text — in something she says was told her by her son from the afterlife.  You will find it on page 22:

Mother, the soul leaves the body as a boy jumps out of the school door.  That is, suddenly, and with joy.

The poetry of those lines, for me,  is the pinnacle of the entire book.

I must add, though, that there is an amusing little verse on another page, 38, when her son asks,

Do you recall how we laughed over that epitaph on a little white gravestone in New England:

‘Since so quickly I was done for,
I wonder what I was begun for?'”

Reading the book, whatever one may think of its veracity, is very poignant for those who, like me, can remember the days when a very few aged, grey soldiers from that terrible First World War still marched in every Fourth of July parade, and when one might encounter on the street a poor old man still “shell-shocked” from that horrendous conflict — and of course each year those selling the little, paper poppies to pin on one’s lapel or dress – the poppies that had become the symbol of that frightful war and its terrible harvest of the lives of youth.

There was a time when almost everyone in America recognized this poem by John McCrae:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

The book Thy Son Liveth may be found online at:

You may be interested to know that the concept of Boylan’s book was reworked into an updated story for a movie a few years ago.  While some may feel it excessively sentimental, others will find it both moving and inspiring — but in any case it is worth watching just to see Vanessa Redgrave’s performance and to hear that remarkable use of simile from the book.  The film — available on DVD now — is called A Rumor of Angels.



In the past I have talked about the four kinds of verse, which can further be reduced to two kinds:

1.  The “facts” of the verse viewed subjectively.

2.  The “facts” of the verse viewed objectively.

An important stage in the development of one’s understanding of hokku is the realization that these two categories apply to old hokku just as they do to other kinds of verse.  So we have “subjective” hokku and we have “objective” hokku.

Because the kind of hokku I teach and prefer is “objective” hokku, we need to know and recognize the difference.  We can find both kinds even within the verses of a single writer, for example in the hokku of Bashō:

There is the well-known verse:

The sea has darkened;
Cries of the wild ducks
Are faintly white.

That is, however, a hokku tainted with subjectivity.  Why?  Because we know that the cries of the ducks are sounds, and sounds cannot be “faintly white.”  There is an exception for the very, very tiny number of people who experience synesthesia, who are able to “see” colors — but we have no evidence that Bashō or any of his readers had that ability.  We must say, then, that Bashō has phrased the hokku in this way to make it obviously “poetic,” that is, to add his fantasy to it instead of just letting it be what it is.

Bashō also wrote:

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the tree shade.

Bashō saw an historically-significant flute at Suma Temple, and he tells us he heard the sound of that unblown flute.  Well, no, he did not.  What he heard at best was a sound he imagined in his mind, leaving aside the issue of how this verse borrows from an old waka verse.  What Bashō has done is to take the silent flute and to romanticize it, to add from his own fantasy to consciously make it more “poetic.”

And of course Bashō also wrote:

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

That, by contrast, is an objective verse, without the added fantasy of the writer.  Now some might say, “Well, Bashō did not really see this exact event, so he did use fantasy,” and they would be right.  But the distinction we want to make here is between those verses that use obvious additions from the imagination for “poetic” effect in contrast to those verses that are — or in the case of this last verse, that seem — to be entirely without the addition of fantasy from the imagination of the writer.  In other words there is nothing “untrue” about the experience of seeing a frog jump into an old pond and hearing the watery “plop!”  But there is something untrue in saying that the cries of wild ducks are “faintly white,” or that one hears an “unblown flute.”  We know right away that neither of these things is “true” to reality, and that is the distinction we make in hokku between subjective, “”untrue” hokku supplemented from fantasy to make them seem more poetic, and objective, “true” hokku that do not say anything out of keeping with the way things are in reality.

Now note this:  The truth of hokku does not mean a verse happened exactly the way the writer gives it.  But the writer must not put anything in it that could not have been experienced in just the way the hokku presents it.  In other words, Bashō may have seen a frog jump into water at some time, and he may have tried to come up with a fitting first line, trying different settings, such as mentioning a kind of flowering shrub.  But in any case, he finally decided on “The old pond” as the appropriate setting.  And the verse has a “true” effect when read.

Remember that in writing hokku, we use the principle of the old Chinese painters — that one went out into nature, looking at mountains and rivers, trees and birds, blossoms and stones, studying their character.  And then one went home and composed an ink painting using the character of the elements one had seen.  The painter likely did not see precisely the landscape in the final painting.  But because he had studied the nature of these things, back in his studio he could combine them into paintings that have the effect of being “true.”

It is the same with hokku.  We write from actual experience, but a particular hokku may combine experiences from more than one occasion, in order to express the character of a season.  But what we cannot do in the kind of hokku I teach is to add fantasies from our imagination that make a hokku obviously “untrue.”  For example, if I write a spring verse about apple blossoms, and throw in that I hear the whistling of Johnny Appleseed as I view them, then obviously I am adding fantasy, and am being “untrue” in hokku.

This matter of adding fantasy from the imagination to a verse, throwing over it what Wordsworth called the “coloring of the imagination,” is very important in understanding the aesthetics behind our kind of hokku — objective hokku — which carefully avoids adding such coloring of the imagination.

Why?  Because our verse is contemplative hokku.  We want to be faithful to Nature and to its character, so we cannot simply add fantasies to events to make them seem more romantic, more “poetic.”  In our kind of hokku the poetry is not on the page, it is in the sensory experience of the verse — touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing.  When one has that, one needs nothing more.

I hope readers will think carefully about this, and will look again at old hokku by different authors to see which are “true” hokku, and which are “untrue.”



It is important to distinguish the essentials from the nonessentials in learning hokku.  Many people easily get sidetracked, often never finding their way back.

There are, of course, ways to improve one’s conscious understanding of hokku.  But it is the immediate effect of a verse that is what first caused that attraction — the effect of pure sensing — drops of rain falling on a pool, leaves drooping in heat, the odd, unmistakeable scent of a dandelion flower — these things are really the essence of hokku.

English: Dandelion flower (Taraxacum officinal...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people of intellectual bent get drawn off into detailed study of old Japanese hokku — of allusions in Japanese or Chinese, of the intricacies of linking verses in the old practice, of the cultural significance of this or that object.  But it is all just distraction.  That is not what drew us to hokku, and the more we go off into intellection rather than sensing — experiencing — the more we will lose hokku.

The other side-route that draws off many people from hokku is the urge to change it — the very mistaken notion that because hokku is “old,” it must be altered to fit the times, to “express the individual.”  First they alter this, then they change that, and quickly hokku disappears — vanishes.  They have lost it because of their self-will, their urge to manipulate, the same urge that has done so much damage in the world.

Very, very few are those who just let hokku be — who accept it as it is in English, without trying to “Japanify” it, without trying to modernize it or intellectualize it or make it a vehicle of “self-” expression.

I hope at least some readers have noticed that I place no emphasis at all on esoteric Japanese terms in hokku.  I just talk of hokku in plain English.  When I am talking about indicating season, I don’t use a foreign term; when I am talking about the “cut” that separates the two parts of a hokku, I don’t use a foreign term.  In fact the only term I really retain with any frequency is the word “hokku” itself, and that only because it is not only a distinctive name, but it is the old name for the kind of verse we write, and there seems no good reason to change that.  And I use the Chinese terms Yin and Yang frequently — not because I want to sound exotic in any way, but just because we do not have native terms in English that cover all that those two terms cover — so I borrow them into English and make them English words because they are so useful.

Readers here will also note (I hope) that to explain hokku, I do not have to keep reaching into the distant Japanese past.  There is no need at all for that.  All we need is here, now, where we are, in this present moment — not in some foreign past.

I can give you all the essentials of writing hokku:  How and where to cut a line, how to punctuate and capitalize, all the useful techniques such as internal reflection and harmony of difference, and harmony of similarity, of repeated subject, and all the rest.  But it is all quite useless if the reader does not begin to live a life of hokku — a life allowing space for simply experiencing — simply being — without intellection — what we call “thinking” in hokku — and a life without the urge to remold hokku into some other form to fit this or that fad or whim.

I deliberately avoid trying to make hokku seem “academic,” which in my view is death to hokku; and I try to avoid making it seem in any way “Japanese,” which it should only be when written by Japanese.  When written by an American it should be thoroughly American — or thoroughly Welsh when written by a resident of Wales, or quite Icelandic when written by an Icelander, and so on through the whole list of countries of the world.

If ever you find yourself getting distracted from “plain” hokku by intellectualism or the urge to change, just pause and remember what drew you to hokku in the beginning — Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons, manifesting through sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.  All the rest is simply distraction from that pure essence.



Readers will long ago have noticed that I use old hokku — including verses just beyond what is technically the old “hokku” period — quite often.  My purpose in doing so is not just to provide a collection of old verse, but rather to show through them how new verses may be written in English — new hokku.

Shiki wrote a verse about a shower and rain beating on the heads of carp.  There are several ways we can present it in English — and several ways we can write other hokku using the same patterns in English.

We could say:

A sudden shower;
Rain beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We could also write it using the “repeated subject” method, which works very well in English.  You will recall that the subject of the verse is named once, but also presented a second time using a pronoun — “he,” “she,” or “it.”  Here’s how it works with Shiki’s verse:

A sudden shower —
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

Either method will work, though the second, “repeated subject” method avoids the repetition of a noun (shower – rain) in the first example, which is often useful.

This verse, though late, is nonetheless “internally” in all respects a hokku, and a rather good one.  This kind of objectivity is what we favor in hokku — no added thinking, no added commentary, not even a writer anywhere in sight.  There is only the unexpected, sudden summer shower, and the rain beating on the heads of the carp risen to the surface of the water.

In spite of being a summer verse, it is a very cooling, yin, watery verse.

Kikaku, one of Bashō’s students, wrote a verse using the same setting much earlier:

A sudden shower;
A solitary woman
Looks outside.

Blyth takes a slight bit of freedom with it, making it even more effective:

A summer shower;
A woman sits alone,
Gazing outside.

That gives us a somewhat different effect than the first, and shows us how small changes in a verse can alter the effect.



A pleasant and simple summer hokku by Kitō:

Little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water.

We see the tiny fish in the clear, sunlit water, swimming against the current, which nonetheless is so strong that, still facing upstream, they are carried  a bit backwards.

This is one of those hokku that is just a kind of rejoicing in the experience of seeing.  We feel the small strength and persistence of the little fish against the greater strength of the clear water.  There is the energy of the fish going in one direction, the energy of the water going in the other.

This is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.

The setting is “the clear water.”
The subject is “little fish.”
The action is “are carried backwards.”



Today I am going to combine some things I have talked about lately:

First is the “Question” hokku, the whole point of which is to ask a question — or raise a question — that remains unanswered.

Shiki wrote a verse which I shall rearrange slightly to better fit English:

On the sandy beach,
Why is a fire being lit?
The summer moon.

Again, the whole point of such a verse is to have us experience — through the elements of the verse — a question that remains unanswered.  It is that feeling of not knowing that is the whole point of a “question” hokku.  To answer the question would ruin the verse.

The second recent topic is that of song lyrics as commonly unrecognized or undervalued poetry.  I have pointed out that song lyrics, which for convenience I call poems/songs, are often not even mentioned when the subject of poetry is raised, because they are somehow seen as “not real poetry.”  But in contrast to that, I also pointed out how in most cultures, poems that today are read silently or aloud were originally sung.  That combines the musicality — the sound and rhythm — of words in a poem with the music of the singing voice, often accompanied by one or more musical instruments.

There is a conflict then — something that makes no sense — when we read through hundreds of pages in an anthology of poetry and find that virtually none of the recent verses included are the poems that are song lyrics.  This is often simply unrealistic snobbery on the part of the compiler or compilers.

But back to the topic.  Just as we find the raising of an unanswered question significant in “question” hokku, we also find it significant in a good longer poem/song.  As an example, here is a rather remarkable poem — originally sung — called “Ode to Billy Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry:

It was the third of June,
another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton
and my brother was balin’ hay.
And at dinner time we stopped,
and we walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet.”
And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas,
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please.”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.
“Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billy Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
And now you tell me Billy Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today,
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way,
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe.
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Wow.  One could hardly find a verse more effective in setting mood, in raising questions that forever remain unanswered.  And the plain, southern “country” language of the writer is very effective.  The whole poem has a hot, weary air that is only heightened when sung.  And the phrasing is so true to life — no “fancy” language here:

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.”


There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything

Look at the effective use of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and repetition of two-syllable words at the very beginning, in setting the tired, drowsy overall atmosphere of the poem:

It was the third of June,
Another sleepy, dusty delta day.

Is it any wonder that the general public has lost interest in much of what is offered in contemporary anthologies and journals as poetry today?  It has all too often become over-intellectualized, over-thought, and has frequently lost the “life” that we see, somewhat paradoxically, in poems such as “Ode to Billy Joe.”



Here is some more on writing five-word Chinese-style quatrains.  For this exercise I have chosen a verse by Li Pin, called “Crossing the Han River.”  I have adjusted the five words of each line to fit English better, but the essential concept is the same.

You will remember that to begin to write five-word verse (five-character verse in Chinese), we need to compose a poem using only nouns, verbs, and occasionally prepositions.  We can leave out articles like “the,” “a,” and “an,” and we need not worry too much about tense or grammar or singular or plural as we lay out the basic framework, like this:

Beyond mountains news letters vanish
Winters pass again come springs
Near town feel more afraid
Not dare ask coming person

Now let’s put that into ordinary English:

Beyond the hills there was no news, no letters;
Winters passed, and spring followed spring.
Now nearing home, I find myself afraid,
And dare not ask the man who comes my way.

As you can see, the “essential words” of the basic framework are just that — a framework we use in composing the final, “fully-English” verse.  We need not fear changing things somewhat, because that is exactly what translators of Chinese verse have traditionally done when putting them into English.

Why then, bother with the framework?  Because it gives us the basic ideas of the poem, which we can then work over to put them into more flowing and smooth English.  It really does work well, though at first it may seem an odd way to compose.

And now the meaning of the verse, which is essentially the same in the Chinese original and the English verse: A man has gone beyond the mountains into far-off lands to work or serve.  He spends years there, as the seasons come and go.  While there no news reaches him, no letters.  Now, at last returning home, he is afraid to ask about his family and friends — afraid of what he might hear after so much time has passed.

And that is how we write “Chinese-style” five-word verses.  As I mentioned earlier, it is a very useful way to write Nature-based verses, because it provides a structure, a framework on which to “hang” the poem.

Give it a try.  Be patient, and once you get it, you will find it not only easy but pleasant and very useful.



Issa wrote this summer hokku:

The big cat —
Flopped down on the fan

It is rather typical Issa, with his connection to animals and his kind of humor.

The point of the verse is that it is summer, which means heat.  Looking for his fan, Issa sees that a big, lazy, sleepy cat has flopped himself down right atop it, and is drowsing away.

So to understand the verse, we have to feel the heat; we have to feel the little frustration yet humor in seeing the cat lying atop the fan; and we have to feel the heaviness of the heat in the bigness of the cat.  The heat of summer has manifested itself in the bigness of the cat that is “keeping” the coolness of the fan.  That is perhaps saying too much, because we are just supposed to feel those connections, but when one is learning, these things occasionally have to be spelled out so that the beginner may know what to look for in hokku, and how they work.

This odd, unspoken connection between things is very common in hokku.  It helps bring us back out of our thoughts to the real world, in which everything and everyone is connected.  We see heat and summer in a big cat, but also in the potential coolness of the fan that we have to go to some bother to retrieve from the cat who has taken it over.  But we must not think the cat is a metaphor or a symbol.  The cat is a cat; the heat is the heat.  And yet the heat manifests in the big cat, the big cat manifests in the heat.  That is how things are “felt” in hokku.

You always read here that hokku should be something seen in a new way.  In Issa’s verse, the newness is in the connection between the summer heat, the big cat, the fan, and of course Issa himself, who is never mentioned at all in the verse.

When we read the hokku, there is no Issa; we become the experiencer.  So we cannot say the hokku is “about” Issa.  In hokku there should be no “fixed” writer visible.  That allows the reader to become the one to whom the hokku is happening.  And each time we read it, it happens anew.  But in hokku we must take one more step and say there is no experiencer.  There is just the experience.   That is why we say in hokku that the writer must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.



We should not forget that both in the West and in parts of the East (as in China), poetry was originally sung — so when we think of song lyrics, we are really thinking about poetry.

I have already said that some poems depend on musicality in use of word sounds and pauses for their effect; others are a combination of musicality and meaning; and yet others depend more on meaning than on musicality — in fact they may have little or no musicality.

Add to this the fact that in early days poems were sung, and you have the musicality of words combined with music itself — in short, songs that are sung, often with the accompaniment of a musical instrument or instruments.

We have to be very honest and admit that “poetry” in the sense in which we ordinarily think of it — the poems of high school English class textbooks, the poems of college anthologies and poetry journals — are today the poems of the very small minority.  Compared to its popularity in the 19th and even the early 20th centuries, very few people are at all interested in poetry today.  That is why the world of poetry and poets today tends to be a little, ingrown community, with the “published” poets often being those with “connections,” either academic or social.

The popular poetry today, however, is not that of the textbook or anthology, but rather that of the song — the “lyric.”  So in a sense society at large has abandoned conventional poetry as largely uninteresting, and has gone back to the old sense of the poem — poetry as song — though it is often not thought of as a poem simply because it is “sung,” not “spoken.”

Poetry — the conventional “read” or “spoken” kind — is not dead at present, but it is certainly far from healthy.  But poetry that is sung continues to be lively –only it is often not recognized or spoken of as such.  Given that today we write out and speak many old poems that were once sung, it is rather paradoxical that so many fail to recognize much that is sung today as poems.

A few years back, when Joni Mitchell wrote (and sang):

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68
And he told me: “All romantics meet the same fate, someday —
Cynical and drunken,
Boring someone in some dark cafe,”

“You laugh,” he said,
“You think you’re immune —
Go look at your eyes, they’re full of moon!
You like roses, and kisses
And pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies….”

she was writing (and singing) poetry.  Even without the music, the lines are musical, with interesting rhyme — “’68,” “fate” “someday,” “cafe.”  And the poetry is effective and true:

You want roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies.

Now ask yourself, why should Joni Mitchell not be numbered among the poets of the 20th century?  Why is she not in college anthologies, when other, lesser writers of the period are?

Or look at these lines, from another Joni Mitchell poem/song:

People will tell you where they’ve gone —
They’ll tell you where to go;
But till you get there yourself you never really know.
Where some have found their paradise,
Others just come to harm;
Oh Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

Very effective; very meaningful.  And for sheer poetry and musicality, one can choose most any stanza from the same poem/song “Amelia,” such as:


A ghost of aviation,
She was swallowed by the sky —
Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly —
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms —
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

Any poet would be proud to have come up with lines like,
A ghost of aviation, she was swallowed by the sky…,”


Like Icarus ascending on beautiful, foolish arms….

It really is amazing when one reads — or better yet, reads and hears — Mitchell’s poems/songs.  There is no sound reason why they should be excluded from anthologies of modern poetry.

And it is not just in English that we find that poetry accompanied by song often exceeds the poetry that is merely written or spoken.  Often the poem/song is surprising in its effective simplicity.  Take for example the verses of Jeanine Deckers, the Belgian one-time nun called paradoxically “Soeur Sourire” (Sister Smile), whose life had a tragic end:

J’ai trouvé le Seigneur sur la plage,
J’ai trouvé le Seigneur dans un
Blanc coquillage.

Petit bateau sur l’eau,
Vogue, vogue,
Petit bateau sur l’eau
Vogue mon âme
Vers le Très-Haut.


How much it loses when we give up the musicality of the French rhyme for the plain meaning — but nonetheless it is still poetry in its childish simplicity:

I found the Lord on the beach,
I found the Lord in a
White seashell.
Little boat on the water,
Float — float —
Little boat on the water,
Float my soul toward the Most High.

She continues with wonderful, simple, clean lines such as:

J’ai trouvé le Seigneur dans la brume,
J’ai trouvé le Seigneur dans la
Rosée des dunes.

I found the Lord in the mist,
I found the Lord in the
Dew of the dunes.

And so her songs/poems go — childlike and simple, often remarkably happy and rhythmic.  It is still a joy to listen to them.  And when one does listen, one begins to see how dry and comparatively, lifelessly “intellectual” many of the poems chosen by academics as worthy of remembrance are, and how many more genuine poems are daily being overlooked or forgotten.  At least forgotten by those who write the poetry journals and compile the anthologies.

But the real poetry of modern times — the poetry people know and remember — is often found not in those publications, but instead in the poems/songs, as we see in the words of Eric Benet:

It’s the same old song;
We’re just a drop of water, in an endless sea;
All we do
Just crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see;
Dust in the wind —
All we are is dust in the wind.

These poems/songs are not in every case what we might want to write or read as poetry. Much that is heard today deserves to be quickly forgotten, in fact much deserves never to be heard at all.  But among them we also find much that is poetry —  and sometimes very good poetry — and that is something we should and must recognize.  There is no point in false, “intellectual” or academic snobbery when such effective verse speaks (and sings) for itself.



I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

Example (Emily Dickinson):

I died for beauty but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

Even though Dickinson is talking about herself, she is doing so fancifully and abstractly (if she were dead, she would not be writing the poem), to make an “intellectual” point.  She (the subject) is writing about herself subjectively (from the mind rather than from the “external” world).

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and fancies and opinions added);

Example: excerpt from Qiu Wei (“Q” in modern Chinese transliteration is like “Ch” pronounced closer to the front of the mouth, so “Qiu” sounds somewhat like “Chyoo” and “Wei” like “Way”):

To your hermitage here atop the mountain
I have climbed, not stopping, these ten miles.
I have knocked on your door, but no one answered;
I have peeked at your room, at your seat beside the table.

Qiu Wei is talking objectively, without adding his fancies or abstract thoughts.

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added):
Example:  Stephen Moylan Bird:

Give me the hills, that echo silence back,
Save the harp-haunted pines’ wild minstrelsy,
And white peaks, lifting rapt Madonna gaze
To where God’s cloud-sheep roam the azure lea.

Bird is talking about hills and pines, but he is “smearing them over” with images and fancies from his imagination instead of just letting them be as they are.

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Example:  Charles L. O’Donnell:

From Killybegs to Ardara is seven Irish miles,
‘Tis there the blackbirds whistle and the mating cuckoos call,
Beyond the fields the green sea glints, above the heaven smiles
On all the white boreens that thread the glens of Donegal.

O’Donnell is presenting things without adding his own fancies and abstract thinking, with the exception of “above the heaven smiles,” which is a subjective way of saying the sky is clear, the sun shining.

The best hokku, as we know, treat the subject — the writer — objectively, without added thoughts and fancies, imagination and ornamentation.  And it treats the object — that which is written about — objectively as well.

Western poetry, by contrast, is often a mixture of objective and subjective.  In fact it seems that Western poets often introduce a subject objectively merely as an excuse to continue by treating it subjectively:

Example:  Mary Carolyn Davies:

Iron, left in the rain
And fog and dew,
With rust is covered. — Pain
Rusts into beauty too.
I know full well that this is so:
I had a heartbreak long ago.

And much Western poetry is simply intellection without a concrete thing-event as its subject:

Example:  Eunice Tietjens:

My heart has fed to-day.
My heart, like hind at play,
Has grazed in fields of love, and washed in streams
Of quick, imperishable dreams.

In addition to the four kinds of poetry just mentioned, we can further subdivide poems into first, those that are “musical,” that is, those using sound in combination with meaning for a great deal of their effect (they still fall into one of the four categories above, or often, in Western verse, a mixture of two of those categories); second, those that that rely on intellectual cleverness:

As an example of a musical verse, we have Robert Frost’s famous

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow

Frost mixes objectivity and musicality through the use of end rhyme and alliteration.

Sometimes the musicality of a verse can become so overwhelming that one may appreciate the music of a line even when the meaning may be difficult to grasp, which is often characteristic of the remarkable poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

One can appreciate the musicality of it even before the sense is clear.  So in poetry we can speak of a balance of sound and sense (meaning) or even of the predominance of sound (the musicality) over sense (meaning).   Everyone knows that certain sounds and combinations of sounds can be remarkably effective.  J. R. R. Tolkien knew that quite well, which is why he wrote that the words “cellar door” (pronounced with a British accent to sound like “selladoah”) have a great beauty of their own (compare the similar musical beauty of the American place name “Shenandoah”).

One must beware, however, of simplistic use of sound.  Many people think that musicality through end rhyme makes anything one writes a “poem.”  In fact, rhymed verse has long been the public concept of a poem.  But such “greeting card verse” is really poem only in name, not in poetic substance.

Then there is poetry that relies less on sound and more on meaning, on intellectuality, as in T. S. Eliot:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

Even Eliot cannot resist a bit of musicality however, as we see in the alliteration of “conveyor of commerce” and “builder of bridges.”

We may legitimately ask — given the Western tradition — whether poetry that puts meaning above sound can really be called poetry.  It can, if the images evoked are “poetic” enough in themselves.  However, the use of words simply to evoke images without coherent overall meaning often leads to poems that are simply a kind of mental regurgitation of whatever comes into one’s head.  This kind of “stream of consciousness” poetry is one of the great degeneracies in poetry of the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.  It is a major reason why the general public has lost interest in poems by “poets.”

The other fault into which non-“sound” poems can fall is that of simply presenting prose with little or no poetic content as poetry by dividing it into lines, with perhaps some peculiarities of arrangement to make it “look” like a poem:

Like a heat pump
A home —
A heat pump
Water heater
To easily move
From one place
To another….

That, by the way, is simply a few lines in an advertisement that came with my last electric bill.  But all too often, modern poetry is simply this — prose disguised to make it LOOK like poetry when it is not.  This kind of thing has been rather common since the days of the “Beats” in the middle of the 20th century.  One finds a lot of it in the writings of Gary Snyder — prose arranged to make it look like poetry.  This is another development that has caused the general public to lose interest in poetry.

When we are writing, we should be aware of what kind of poetry we are writing, and of why we choose to write that way.  Knowing the four kinds of poetry, and knowing the effects of musicality and meaning — sound and sense — together or apart, helps us to better understand and evaluate not only our own verses, but also the poems of others, so that we may not be taken in by the hucksterism and pseudo-intellectual jargon and nonsense so remarkably prevalent in discussions about modern poets and modern poetry.



As readers know, I often use the ancient concept of the two opposite yet harmoniously-working elements of the universe, Yin and Yang, in explaining hokku.  Jia Dao wrote:

Asking the young boy beneath the pine,
He says, “Master is off gathering herbs,
Just someplace 
in these mountains —
The clouds are deep — I don’t know where.”

Photo by kind permission of Keith Liang (

Aren’t these Chinese mountains amazing?  Who would have guessed that such mountains exist anywhere this side of Pandora?  Looking at them, we see the high (Yang) mountains rising into the swirling mist and clouds (Yin).

I was fortunate recently to find a photograph locally by Keith Liang.  I have it up above my desk as I write this.  A friend of mine who does Chinese brush painting stopped by and noticed it immediately.  She thought at first it was a painting, because it expresses the spirit found in Chinese landscape painting so well.  And she was very taken with its interaction of dark spaces and “blank” spaces, the interaction of mountains and clouds.  No doubt that is what drew me to it when I first saw it.

In China, a landscape is called a “mountains-water.”  We certainly see both in this photo.

But I want to talk a little about Chinese poetry, which influenced hokku, particularly through the anthology known as the Three Hundred Tang Poems.  “Tang” here means the Tang Dynasty.  One of the poets in that collection is Jia Dao, who wrote the verse above.

In the original, it is a “five-character” poem, meaning that each of its four lines is composed of five characters.  These characters function very similarly to our “essential words” in composing hokku, except that in hokku we add the necessaries of normal English to finish.  In literary Chinese, the words remain as they are.

If we look, for example, at the first two lines and translate them literally,  they look something like:

Pine under ask child boy
Say master gather medicine go

Those of you who have read Chinese poetry in translation can see from this why different translations of the same verse are often so unlike one another.  It is because the very basic elements of literary Chinese make many different ways of translating into English possible.

There is nothing to prevent us from writing our own Nature-based, “Chinese” style verse today, and when we do so, the “essential words” construction of the Chinese poem can be a great help.

I have already said that Jia Dao’s poem is a five-character poem (we can think of it as using five “essential words,” those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar in English).  There are also seven-character poems, with seven to a line instead of five.  But for practice here, we will try one like that of Jia Dao, in four lines and with five essential words.  This will give you a rough idea how to do it.  Don’t overthink the essential words — just think of them as nouns, verbs, and prepositions essential to meaning.  Don’t worry about grammar, don’t bother too much initially about plural or singular.  Then you might get something like:

This year summer late come
Day day cool rain fall
Clouds cover west hill top
Mist swirl on long river

Now we can clean that up to make the verse:

This year summer comes late;
Day after day the cool rains fall;
Clouds hide the west hill summit;
Mist swirls above the long river.

We can leave it at that, or if we like, we can take it one further step from the original, as do many translators of Chinese verse, to put it into more flowing English.

Summer is late in coming this year;
Day after day the cool rains fall.
The western peaks are veiled in clouds;
Mist swirls above the long river.

Even from our little sample here, we can see why we often find short poems written on Chinese landscape paintings.  It is because the images and the words go very well together.

I hope that readers here will experiment with writing some “five-character” Chinese poems in English.  It is just as easy as I have demonstrated.  Don’t worry about making your poems great literature.  Just use them to express Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, just as in hokku.

This is a very easy and pleasant way to write Nature poetry with a spirit very much like that of hokku, only with more “space,” which is not surprising, because one characteristic of Chinese poetry in comparison to the hokku is that the former usually has a much greater sense of space and distance, while hokku tends to focus on the small and near-by.

Another difference is that hokku works in “threes,” such as the three lines of our English-language hokku, while Chinese verse works in couplets — pairs of two lines.  Jia Dao’s verse, then, is a quatrain (four-lined poem) consisting of two couplets (pairs of two lines).

We can, if we wish, write five-character poems longer than four lines, and we can also increase the number of “essential words” per line to seven, to approximate a Chinese “seven-character” poem.  However we do it, writing Chinese-style poetry gives us a wonderful option for writing about those experiences of Nature that simply do not fit well into the three lines of a hokku.  And we can write them in the same spirit of poverty, simplicity, and transience, exhibiting the changes of Nature through the interaction of Yin and Yang as the seasons come and go.

If you found this posting interesting, you may also wish to read the following, with additional information on how to write “Chinese” poetry in English:



Sōseki wrote this summer hokku:

The red sun
Sinks down into the sea;
The heat!

The sun sinks into the sea every day, so what is different about this that makes it worthwhile and not just a commonplace?  It is the combination of the redness (very yang) of the sun combined with the intensity (we see it in the exclamation point) of the heat (also yang).  Both are unified by the flat horizon of the sea to give a very strong physical sensation, which is what we look for in hokku.

The heat of the day is already there as evening nears.  But it is the largeness, the redness of the setting sun that brings out its magnitude; we not only feel the heat, we see it in the redness.

The setting is “the heat.”
The subject is “the red sun.”
The action is “sinks down into the sea.”

As I have said before, we can write countless hokku on countless subjects using the combination of setting, subject, and action.



In our practice of hokku, we must beware of using the entire body of existing old hokku and its related literature as a fundamentalist uses the Bible.  By this I mean that we should not say, for example, “Jōsō did this in that particular hokku, therefore we should do it in modern hokku” or “Bashō used what looks like metaphor in this verse, therefore we should use metaphor in writing hokku today.”  That is a very distorted way of understanding our practice of hokku.

Instead, we begin with what we want to achieve in hokku:  We want to write verses that emphasize sensory experience — experiences of seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, and smelling — having as our subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, and that set in the context of the changing seasons.

Further, we want to write verse exhibiting poverty, simplicity, and transience — verses that show us not only freshness and youth but also time and age.

And we also want “selfless” verses, a de-emphasis on the ego, treating the person — even the person of the writer — with the same objectivity with which we would write of a tree on a rocky hillside or a bird in the forest.  We want our verse to have an inexpressible significance that is felt through what it does present, but never overtly stated — because such significance is impossible to put into words.

In the practical matter of putting the words on the page, we already have the hokku form, which works superbly well, with punctuation used to guide the reader smoothly and to provide fine shades of pause and emphasis.

We want our hokku, further, to be free of intellection and abstraction, free of added commentary and explanation, free of unnecessary “poetic” frills and ornamentation.

If all of this is how we want to write hokku (and as taught on this site, it is), then we really need waste no time on the academic side of it all.  We need not learn Japanese; we need not learn Japanese history; we need not learn Japanese culture.  Above all, we need not search through old hokku literature, as the fundamentalist searches the scriptures, to see just what Bashō said about this or that, or whether this or that author wrote hokku from the imagination rather than from reality.  In fact we need no reference to old hokku at all beyond the simple fact that I like to use the best of old hokku, translated into English, as models when teaching how to write good hokku in English.

I do not and have never pretended that hokku as I teach it incorporates absolutely everything ever employed in the old Japanese literary practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse, of which the hokku was the first and starting verse.  Instead I teach what in my view is the distilled essence, the best, aesthetically, of the old hokku, as it applies to a spiritual and contemplative lifestyle.  Keep in mind that even in speaking of Bashō, only a small percentage of his verses are really worthwhile for us today.

In the past I have sometimes, perhaps, spent too much time on historical examination of the old practice of haikai, something that is entirely unnecessary for what I teach.  Such things are a matter for scholars and may be of interest to some, but they really need play no part in the living practice of hokku today, and in fact for the most part we are better off when just working on our practice of hokku, rather than dispersing our energies in historical and literary research.

All of this, you can probably tell, is leading up to something.  That something is simply a shift in approach on this blog.  From this point onward, I want to emphasize the practical approach to hokku, leaving most of the linguistic and historical aspects for those who want to spend the time on them.  Given the general goals in writing hokku mentioned earlier, there is really no reason at all for dwelling here on the history of hokku or all the minutiae of hokku as practiced more than a hundred years ago when it was part of the wider practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse.

That change in emphasis here means that I hope to be spending more time on the aesthetics of hokku specifically as we practice it here, and though I will no doubt continue to use old examples as models and bits of old literature to illustrate aesthetics, I really want to get away completely from anything that looks even remotely like the “proof-texting” attitude toward hokku.

As I said in a previous recent posting, we need not look to any aspect of old haikai practice to validate our practice of hokku today.  Our practice has its own body of aesthetics and principles and techniques, the essence of the best, as I have said, of the old hokku.  So from now on I would like to focus on that.

In practical terms, that means I am likely to lessen or omit entirely the use of transliteration and literal translation of Japanese hokku here, concentrating more on what the old hokku examples mean (or should mean) in English as models for our new verses.  I hope that will serve to make this site less “academic-appearing” and more practical and direct in serving those who want to understand how to write good hokku today.

I will continue, no doubt, to range rather widely in my subject matter, throwing in a non-hokku poem now and then when the mood strikes me, or a commentary on matters not obviously directly relating to hokku.  And I would like to spend some time discussing the “Chinese” influence on our hokku — specifically the effect of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism, and Chinese Nature poetry.  But fear not, I will do this in a practical rather than academic manner — for example, I want to show how to write “Chinese-style” Nature verses in English, and how doing so differs somewhat, yet is nonetheless similar to, hokku.

I hope all of this will not be too disappointing for the Japanophiles and for those who like digging about in the literary and cultural history of hokku in Japan.  But modern hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, as I have said before, should not be a cultural outpost of Japan.  It should be a plant native to the soil in which it grows — Russian hokku in Russia, Welsh hokku in Wales, Brazilian hokku in Brazil, an expression of the environment and language in which it is written.

One more point.  I have said that from now on I want to emphasize hokku as we practice it here.   To do so, we need to distinguish that from everything else that may fall under the category of hokku, the good and the bad, the usable and the impractical.  So I am going to give hokku as taught here a distinguishing name — I will refer to hokku as I teach it as “Yin-Yang” hokku, because as frequent readers here know, I often use the universal elements of Yin and Yang to explain hokku, how it utilizes the changing combinations of those opposite yet complementary forces in Nature in creating verses that are harmonious and unified.  I think that distinguishing our practice of hokku here thus will prove helpful and practical in a number of ways.

One more point.  In the use of old models in the future, I will make no practical distinction between good examples that are chronologically correctly termed hokku and later examples — specifically the better verses of Shiki — that are not.  A good part of what Shiki wrote was, in all but name, hokku.  So I will use whatever serves to illustrate and improve our practice of hokku, regardless of chronology.




We already know that a metaphor, simply speaking, is saying one thing is another.  And we know a simile is saying one thing is like another.  An allegory is “speaking otherwise than one seems to speak,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.  In simple terms that is “saying one thing, but meaning another.”  A symbol is “something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else,” as the same dictionary tells us.

Knowing all this, we are now prepared to take a look at two verses:

Shiragiku no   me ni tatete miru    chiri mo nashi
White-chrysanthemum ‘s eyes at raise look  dust even not

White chrysanthemums;
Lifting the eyes to look —
Not a speck of dust.

This verse was written as a greeting to Bashō’s hostess.  This was a common function of the hokku when used as the first verse of a series of linked verses (haikai no renga).

Botan shibe fukaku   wakeizuru hachi no   nagori kana
Peony pistils deep   separate-emerge  bee ‘s parting-reluctance kana

The bee emerges
From the peony pistils.

This verse was written as a parting verse for one of Bashō’s hosts.

Now it is immediately obvious that both of these verses were written for special occasions — the first as greeting, the second as parting — and so they fall into a particular class of hokku that we call “occasion” hokku (in the old haikai practice, a greeting verse could be the opening verse of a series of linked verses).

Long-time readers of this site will recall that we have talked about  “occasion” hokku before, explaining how they differ from regular hokku.

To understand the peculiar nature of “occasion” hokku, we must understand just what they are.  Keep in mind always the dictum that the best hokku (we are not talking now about bad hokku or the occasional exception here) are not symbols for anything, are not metaphors.  Instead, they make use of layers of associations.  They do not say one thing is another (metaphor), nor do they say one thing is like another (simile).  This is a matter difficult for some people to understand, because they are so accustomed to simile and metaphor in Western verse that they see it even where it does not exist.

There is an interesting yet very simple summer hokku written by Chine-jo (the -jo suffix tells us the writer is a woman).

Easily it glows —
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We could say that this verse has a double meaning, because it was written as Chine-jo’s death verse — but that is not entirely accurate.  To say that the verse is a metaphor for Chine-jo’s death and leave it at that would also be misleading, because the verse uses the old principle that in hokku, one small thing can hold the meaning of something much larger.  For example, we say that in hokku one leaf is all of autumn.

In this verse, the firefly’s glow going easily out expresses all such things in Nature, the fact that if the ego is not struggling against Nature, everything becomes “easy” in life and death, because the individual will dissolves into Nature’s will, as it is put in Canto III of Dante’s Paradiso:

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

Rather it is necessary to this blessed existence
To keep one’s self within the Divine will,
So that our wills may be one..

E ’n la sua volontate è nostra pace:

And in His will is our peace.”

That is the mind of Chine-jo, whose will has become one with the firefly, with Nature, so that

Easily it glows,
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We will often find hokku that, while having their own meaning, to be read as referring to nothing beyond themselves, are yet applied to events in life that are expressed through them.  We find them — as here — in death verses, in verses written for greetings and partings and other such occasions, which is why we call such hokku “occasion” hokku.

That brings us back to the earlier two examples — the white chrysanthemum and the emerging bee.  As “occasion” hokku, these have a double meaning.  The chrysanthemum applies to Bashō’s hostess, on one side; but on the other, it is simply a hokku about a chrysanthemum.  Similarly the emerging bee verse on one side is simply about that; on the other it applies to Bashō’s reluctant departure.  Chiyo-ni’s verse, on one side, is about human death; but on the other side, it is about the light of a firefly going out.

We must not minimize or subordinate either meaning in occasion hokku, but neither should we confuse them simply as allegory or metaphor by saying:  “This says A, but it means B.”  The correct answer is, “This means A and it means B.  Sometimes we will want to read it as A, but for this particular occasion and purpose, it means B.”  Half of the dual function of an occasional verse is, in the words of the O.E.D., speaking otherwise than one seems to speak, which is the definition of allegory; and Bashō quite obviously did, for particular occasions, compose hokku in which he was doing so, as did other composers of such verses.  But we must not forget the non-occasion use of the same hokku, when the original occasion has passed and the hokku still exists and must be appreciated not as allegory but for itself alone.

The solution to the matter lies in the difference between subordination and equality.  If we say, for example, that the verse about the spotless chrysanthemum is a metaphor, or an allegory, or a symbol for Bashō’s hostess, but fail to point out that the verse must also function perfectly as a hokku completely on its own and independent of that allegorical use, then we are subordinating the “ordinary” meaning of the hokku to the allegorical meaning.  If a hokku is strong in its allegorical significance, but weak independent of allegory, then it fails as good hokku.

An “occasion” hokku must be able to function equally well in both its application as “allegory” and in non-occasion, non-allegorical use — at its own obvious “face value,” so to speak.

It is critical when writing occasion hokku that we do not cross the line into making them meaningful only when applied to the event, in which case they would be mere allegories.  All too often the old writers of hokku — particularly those used as the first verse of haikai-no-renga did this.   Instead, they must be fully strong within and as themselves — like the “firefly” verse of Chine-jo — and yet fully expressive of the occasion for which they are written — as we also find in that verse.

Having said all this, what then, do we do with the occasional old hokku that does use metaphor in some way?  We find, for example, Bashō’s autumn hokku:

Yuku aki ya   te o hirogetaru   kuri no iga
Going autumn
ya hands o opened chestnut’s bur

Autumn departing;
With open hands —
The chestnut burs.

Here, in a greeting verse written for a linked-verse-composing party, Bashō is apparently referring to the mature, opened halves of the chestnut bur as “palms” (he actually says “hands” but it is assumed that the means the halves have opened like the hollowed palms of two hands).

The answer is that we do nothing at all.  referring back to the first part of this article, you will recall I said that the best old Japanese hokku do not use obvious metaphor or simile.  And this rather mediocre verse is no exception to that rule.

In our practice of hokku we do not use such verses as models precisely because the use of metaphor or simile detracts from what we want to achieve in the kind of hokku I teach.  A metaphor or simile in verse is essentially a split image, requiring the reader to visualize two different things, such as the chestnut bur halves and the opened palms in the verse by Bashō.  But in hokku we want the focus undivided, direct and strong.

To summarize then:

1.  The best old hokku (and of course good modern hokku) do not use metaphor or simile.

2.  Some old hokku applied to certain occasions such as greeting, parting, and death had the ability to function on two different planes of meaning; one function approximates that known in English as allegorical; the other function was entirely non-allegorical; neither function is subordinated to the other in the best hokku, making such a verse non-allegorical (and non-metaphorical) in the common English sense of the word, which requires the subordination of one function to the other.

Do you still find all of this somewhat confusing?  No problem.  Just let the academics bicker pointlessly over it, but remember not to use metaphor or simile or allegory in your hokku, with the possible exception of the double function of “occasion” hokku as explained above — if from time to time you may feel moved to write an “occasion” hokku.  If you do not feel so moved, you may ignore them entirely.



Recently I had a pleasant dinner with a long-time friend.  As we sat, we looked through an exhibit catalog of student work, the work being paintings in the Chinese manner.

There were two styles — the spontaneous, which was largely black and white or with sometimes minimal added color, and the elaborate, which often utilized very striking and brilliant colors.  We discussed which were good, which were not so good, and why.

It was obvious that we had to use different criteria for the different styles.  In the spontaneous style, one looks for strength and fluidity and movement in brush strokes.  But in the elaborate style, one must be more careful, because the eye is automatically drawn by the bright colors, and line becomes more formal.  A slight error, and the painting degenerates into stiffness and garishness.  In such paintings, one not only looks for the absence of flatness in color, but one also looks for “life” in the eye of a parrot, in the turn of head and lift of leg of a rooster.

In a way, the two styles of painting are somewhat like Western poetry compared to hokku.  Just as in the elaborate style the eye can be misled by the brilliance of color, in poetry one can be led astray by clever phrasing and the flash of unusual wording.  But one must look beyond and through these, at the “eye” of the poem, to see if it contains the glint of life, or if its elements are merely assembled and stuck on, like cut-out photos pasted into a collage.

In hokku, however, we are looking at the bare bones, like the rocks of a stony mountain, or the rush of a mountain rivulet.  It is all in the elements and in the movement, all in the immediate experience, and if a hokku fails in that, it fails as miserably as a painting with crudity and awkwardness of line.



Issa, whom we do not often use as a model, wrote this summer hokku:

From below
The bridge I creep across —
A cuckoo!

Though Issa says merely “bridge,” we can tell from his timid creeping across it that it is a hanging bridge over a canyon or ravine.  As he fearfully, hesitantly crosses, suddenly from far below he hears the “ho-to-to” cry of the bird the Japanese call the hototogisu, a kind of cuckoo.

Some writers think that Issa may simply have seen the bird below, but that would cause the hokku to lose its effect.  The whole point of it is the startling, unexpected sudden cry from below that emphasizes the feeling of the height and precariousness of crossing the little hanging bridge.



The Germans have a great expression — “Na, und?”  It is the equivalent of the American “So what?” — or more briefly, “So?”

That should be our attitude toward those who like to argue and intellectualize about hokku.

Suppose, for a moment, that Bashō’s practice of hokku was in some or many respects very different from how we practice it today.

Suppose, further, that old hokku had nothing whatsoever to do with “Zen” or with spirituality.

Suppose, finally, that what we practice today as hokku had little or nothing in common with the old hokku.  What would all that change in our aesthetics and practice?  Precisely nothing, because we need no authorization from any actual or supposed authority.

Why?  Because we do not do this or that in hokku “because Bashō did it.”  We do it because it works in conveying precisely what we want to convey in the English language and in non-Japanese cultures today — verse focused on Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, expressing the continual changes of Yin and Yang — verse not as intellection, not as “literature,” but as sensory experience — tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, expressed in poverty, simplicity, and transience, and based in a deep, non-dogmatic spirituality.

We could, in fact, teach and practice our hokku without the slightest reference to Japan or old Japanese writers, because our modern hokku has its body of principles, practices, and aesthetics that stand perfectly well on their own.

And if we wished, we could choose an entirely new name for the kind of verse we write.  That we do not is merely a nod of respect to the old hokku tradition.

That is one reason why in hokku we have no reason to argue and debate with those who practice other kinds of verse.  If people come to us quoting this or that writer on the history or practice of old hokku, saying that what we do differs from it in one way or another, we really have nothing to say to them, because it does not matter whether it is true or not.  Our aesthetics and our practice stand on their own.

The point of saying all this is that our practice of hokku is not validated by anything said or done in the past in Japan, as someone might try to validate a religious dogma by referring to the “scriptures.”  Our practice of hokku is self-validating.  It is what it is because it does what we want it to do, and it does it superbly well.  That is a remarkably liberating position, because it frees us from all the petty quarrels and bickering that plague other kinds of brief verse practice.

So if people tell us that our hokku differs from their understanding of old hokku — no matter what they may call it — in this or that way, we  can only respond, “Perhaps, but that is irrelevant.”


I am always surprised and amazed by those who speak of hokku as though it were something outdated and to be discarded.  The emphasis today is on “new,” “new,” “new” and “different,” “different, “different.”

What people with such childish thinking do not realize is that everything one sees is continually new, continually different.  It is their way of seeing that is the same.  That is why Thoreau told us that what we need is not new clothes, but rather a new wearer of clothes.  We must change how we see things if we want to follow hokku well.

I like very much — and apply to hokku — what Robert Frost once said of his own kind of poetry:  “It is an old-fashioned way of being new.”

Buson wrote this summer hokku:

June rain
In the downspout;
The ears of old age.



There is a summer hokku by Kikaku that requires very few words in English translation:

Inazuma ya   kinō wa higashi    kyō wa nishi
Lightning ya
yesterday wa east  today wa west.

Yesterday east,
Today west.

Even though it has a wider time scale than most hokku, it does have a sense of concentrated power and change.

We have seen that many hokku use harmonies either of similarity or of contrast.  In this verse we have the contrast of past and present, yesterday and today; and in addition we have the contrast of East and West.

That is why this hokku gives us a sense of space.  There is the  vast space between yesterday and today, which is in harmony with the vast space between the eastern sky and the western sky.  Both are unified by the lightning.



There is a very interesting old summer hokku by Ryusūi:

Mayoigo no   naku naku tsukamu   hotaru kana
Lost-child ‘s  crying crying grasping fireflies kana

A lost child;
He cries and cries
And grasps at fireflies.

Some verses make such excellent metaphors for one thing or another that we must resist the temptation to read them as such, because if we do so read them, we lose the poetry at which hokku excels — the poetry of the “thing-event” itself, with nothing added.

Westerners often simply do not understand this, because Western poetry very seldom enjoys something for itself; they think that one must add a “poet’s eye” to it, meaning additional commentary or metaphor or speculation or elaboration or ornamentation.  But in hokku it is just the unspoken significance of the thing-event that is wanted, none of the rest, thank you!

What do I mean by a “thing-event”?  I mean simply something being what it is, doing what it is doing; a leaf is both a thing (a leaf) and an event (leafing).  Human beings human-be.  Nothing exists stable and unchanging, not a stone, not a river, not a galaxy.  So the “thing-event” in this verse is the little-child-crying-as-he-grasps-at-fireflies.

Robert Frost, in his poem “A Tuft of Flowers,” wrote:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside the reedy brook the scythe had bared…

The mower in the dew had loved them thus
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.”  That is the very spirit of hokku and its humility.  When we want to be “poets,” we are taking the focus away from what we write and putting it on ourselves — and that is the opposite of hokku.  Our writing should not be to draw the thought of the reader to us, but rather to just let him or her experience the unspoken significance of the thing-event, whether it be a tuft of flowers spared by a scythe or a little child weeping and grasping at fireflies.  As we say in hokku, we must be silent so that Nature may speak.

Now, having warned the reader that Ryusūi’s hokku is NOT a metaphor, NOT a symbol, we are now free to say again that such a hokku, though it is neither of those things, nonetheless does make a good metaphor for human life.

It is interesting that in Japanese, the first word of the expression meaning “lost child” — mayoi — also is the Japanese translation of the Buddhist sanskrit term māyā, which means “illusion.”  Māyā is the illusion of existence, our attachment to the idea of a personal “self,” our getting caught up in thinking that running after wealth and power and fame and sensual pleasure are real and important.  People forget the old saying, “Birth is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.”  They neglect their spiritual development, spending all their time on television or parties, or (gasp!) the Internet.  They do not know or have forgotten the old Buddhist parable from the Mahayana Lotus Sutra:  A group of children were busy playing in a house that caught fire, too absorbed in their games to notice.  Their father called and called for them to come out, but they were so wrapped up in their entertainments that they paid no heed to the fire or to him.

We are all in a burning house.  We are all lost children.  And we weep and weep about it, but what do we do?  We continue to “grasp at fireflies,” even as we weep.

We are perfectly free to use a hokku as a metaphor, but we must not make the mistake of saying or thinking it IS a metaphor.  And when we so utilize it, we must give up the poetry of the hokku in order to make our own use of it, putting it to a task for which it was not intended, no matter how well it does the job.



A summer hokku:

Leaves suddenly appear
On the paper screen.

This too is a verse requiring a small intuitive leap.  Why would leaves suddenly appear on a paper screen?  Because the sun has just risen, casting shadows of plants onto the east side of the screen; and the observer is behind the screen, and sees them as they suddenly appear, dark silhouettes on the paper, surrounded by translucent light.

That of course uses “harmony of contrast” — the bright Yang light of the rising sun, and the Yin shadows cast on the Yang white paper screen.



Jōsō wrote a summer hokku:

In the white rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos

That is a very literal translation.  In English we would not be likely to say “white rain.”  Instead we would probably say,

In the clear rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos.

This, as you all know by now, shows “harmony of similarity.”  The rain falls, the ants run down.  “Down” is a Yin direction (up is Yang);  rain is Yin.  If the ants were going up the bamboos, there would be, of course, a contrast.  But here the harmony is in the falling rain, the downward-running ants.  And of course in English there is the subtle humor of ants running down the bamboos when we would think of rainwater running down the bamboos.

Blyth, in his translation, made an intuitive leap:  If the ants are all coming down the bamboos, he thought, it must be the end of the day — twilight or evening.  All the rest of the day the ants would be busily going up.  So he translated it:

An evening shower;
The ants are running
Down the bamboos.

Of course ants will run to escape rain, so we may choose which approach we prefer.

In any case, it makes an effective hokku, with the clear rain falling and trickling down the stalks of bamboo as the dark ants come rushing downward.  It has a lot of movement, and that gives it life.



Today was beautiful where I am.  After days and days of pouring rain and cool temperatures, the sky cleared, the sun shone, and the temperature rose into the low 80s.

It made me think of the old lines from the Song of Solomon:

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

How much more poetic that is in “King James” English than in modern versions.  And I like the humor of people today having forgotten that “turtle” at the time of translation meant a turtle dove — and consequently wondering what the voice of a turtle might sound like.

There are the words attributed to Jesus in the King James Version:

I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

How far more beautiful that is than the modern

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

But I digress.

The sudden warmth reminds me of what is in store for us, the kind of heat of which Buson wrote:

Are hot things;
The summer grove.

That, of course, is a “statement” hokku, which I just discussed in a recent posting.  You will recall that a “statement” hokku makes a statement that is simply true.  But in making it the writer tells us something that we did not realize we knew — until we read the hokku.

The “something seen in a new way” in this verse is the combination of the spiderwebs and the heat in the silent, heavy air of the grove of trees.  Ordinarily we think of a web as light and airy, but walking through a hot grove of trees on a hot day, with spiderwebs sticking to one’s face and hands, one has a “little enlightenment”:

Are hot things;
The summer grove.

This verse shows the Yang nature of summer with its heat.  Even things we ordinarily think of in cool or airy Yin terms — a grove of trees — spiderwebs — have here become Yang.



Sooner or later (I hope sooner) in the study of hokku, one begins to ask just what makes an extraordinary hokku.  The question is inevitable because all of us, in our practice, are going to write lots of very ordinary hokku — pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable.  Here is a “summer” hokku as an example:

A clear morning;
Above the distant clouds
Blue mountains rise.

That is what I like to call a “block print” hokku.  It makes an attractive scene, like the landscape block prints of the Japanese artists Yoshida and Hasui, but there is nothing striking or memorable about it.

Why is that?  We can answer with what generally defines a good hokku — a good hokku shows us something seen in a new way.  That should be engraved on the memory of every student of hokku — something seen in a new way.

Though the example hokku is not unpleasing, there is really nothing new about it, no different perspective that allows us to see something freshly.  And that in essence is what makes the difference between an ordinary hokku and an extraordinary hokku.

As an example of something seen in a new way, here is a summer hokku by Onitsura:

The leaping trout,
Clouds flowing.

This is another of those hokku requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, but such an intuitive leap in hokku should be easy, not difficult, and should happen split-second quickly.  Onitsura watches a trout leap out of the water, and in the water below the trout, passing clouds are reflected.

Such an unusual perspective often distinguishes extraordinary hokku from merely ordinary hokku.  Also note the sense of movement and change in Onitsura’s hokku, something we do not find in the “ordinary” example, where everything seems static and unmoving, just as in a block print.  Generally we avoid hokku in which nothing is moving or changing, though it does not hurt to write one now and then.  Movement adds energy to a hokku.  An exception, however, would be when we deliberately want to stress the lack of movement in a verse, which can happen occasionally.

Don’t fear to write ordinary hokku.  You may wish to create them to remember a particular time or for some other reason.  But be aware that what really makes hokku worthwhile is the good hokku, even the extraordinary hokku, and to write those we must see something in a new way, from a different perspective.  That different perspective need not be as obviously striking as in Onitsura’s example.

Over time we will write hokku that range from ordinary to better-than-ordinary to an occasional extraordinary verse.  All are part of learning.  But we should be able to tell the difference.  That is why in hokku we place such great emphasis on understanding its aesthetics and techniques.  If you do not know what makes a good hokku, an extraordinary hokku, how can you write them?  But learn the principles of hokku, and your discernment will improve.



Etsujin wrote:

How serenely they fall
When the time comes —
Poppy flowers.

That is a “statement” hokku.  A “statement” hokku makes a simple, true observation about something; it tells us something we already know but did not know we knew until we read the verse.  We must be careful to distinguish such a remark from just commentary or elaboration, in which personal views may enter into the matter.  The remark in a statement hokku should be something obviously true, about which there can be no controversy.

In technique, note how this verse in English uses the “double subject.”  By “double subject,” we mean that the hokku first introduces the subject one way — with either a pronoun or a noun — and then goes on to finish by repeating the subject using the other term.  If it begins with a pronoun, it continues with a noun; if it begins with a noun, it continues with a pronoun.  Look again:

How serenely THEY fall
When the time comes —

“They” (pronoun) and “poppy flowers” (noun) both refer to the same subject, thus the name “repeated subject.”  This is very handy when writing hokku in English.

We should also note that this verse could easily be used as an “occasion” hokku.  An “occasion” hokku is a verse written for a specific occasion — as a greeting, as a parting, on a birth, or on a death, etc.

The characteristic of an “occasion” hokku is that it must be equally meaningful when NOT applied to an occasion as when applied.  For example, we see that this makes a quite good hokku without application to any occasion.  But it would also make a very appropriate and meaningful hokku on the calm passing of a loved one.  So an “occasion” hokku must work well when applied to the specific occasion and when applied to no occasion.  By “occasion” we mean an event in human life.



Old hokku sometimes included historical, literary, or cultural allusions that make them very difficult for modern English-language readers to understand.  As I have already explained, we say that such verses “Do not travel well.”  That means they require so much explanation even after translation that any strength that might have been in the hokku is largely lost.  It is like having to explain a joke after one has told it.  Nearly all the effect is gone.

And of course many such allusive hokku were not very good to begin with.  Nonetheless, when the average Westerner reads them, completely unfamiliar with the background to such verses, the likelihood of misunderstanding becomes very high.

As we have seen, from the late 19th century and all through the 20th and even into the 21st century, most Westerners have completely misunderstood the hokku, and have seen it through their own colored glasses, tinted to make it seem like the Western poetry with which they are already familiar.

One such allusive verse by Bashō is:

Tsuki izuku    kane wa shizumeru   umi no soko
Moon where?  bell wa sunken       sea   ‘s   bottom

Where is the moon?
The bell has sunk
To the bottom of the sea.

A Western enthusiast reading this without the context of hokku (I won’t name him) thought this an example of imaginative surrealism in Bashō — that Bashō just “made up” a fanciful verse.  As I always say, Westerners just misinterpret hokku in terms of what they already know — or think they know.

Actually, however, Bashō is not being surreal or exhibiting a wild imagination; he is referring to an historical event, one of many that took place during the gruesome and violent political history of Japan.  Without going into detail, there was a military defeat and suicides at a beach, and a large bell associated with the event sank into the sea.  From that alone we can see that what we find in the verse is not surrealism — just historical allusion.

In our practice of hokku we do not much care for such things.  I tend to discourage allusion in hokku because it demands a background that many do not have; and further, because it often detracts from the sensory experience of the hokku and takes us into intellectualism.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that historically it was sometimes found in hokku, and that numbers of old verses cannot be fully understood without recognizing such allusions.

But from our perspective, what interests in this hokku (even though it is not a very good hokku) is something else.  Let’s look at it again:

Where is the moon?
The bell has sunk
To the bottom of the sea.

If you are a long- time reader here and have been absorbing what is taught, it should dawn on you that this is a hokku using what we call “harmony of similarity.”  That means a verse combining things that are similar in some way, even if only in feeling.  In this verse we have two kinds of similarity:

1.  Similarity of absence:  the moon is absent, the bell is absent.
2.  Similarity of shape:  the moon is round, the bell (which in the story of this verse is turned upside down in the sand at the sea bottom) is also round (its basal opening is round).

That does not mean we should imitate such verses in their use of allusion, because that is not something that fits our approach to hokku; nor should our verses require explanation.  Even to understand the second similarity, it helps to know that divers tried to retrieve the sunken bell, but because it was upside-down in the sand on the sea floor, they could not.  We can, however, keep in mind and use when appropriate the “harmony of similarity.”

The average Western reader, however, ignorant of the allusion and of the technique alike, will likely end up with some confused notion of what the verse is all about — perhaps even describing it (quite inaccurately) somewhat as the fellow mentioned earlier did — as imaginative and surreal.



As I mention repeatedly, a sense of transience is very important in hokku, because it is not only all around us, but within us as well.  The writers of hokku express it very simply.  Western poets have a more elaborate way of dealing with it, as in this poem by Louise Driscoll (1875-1957).  It is a good reminder.  No matter what we think we are buying in life, what we are really getting is age:


With his unspent youth
Like a penny in his hand,
See him stand!
There’s a look on his face
Like a child that comes
To the market-place
After tops and drums.

With his youth—his youth
As a thing that he can spend—
See him run!
And what will he have for
His bargain at the end
When it’s done?

I have asked old men
With their empty purses,
I have heard the tale
Each one rehearses,
And on the last page
They have all bought age.
They have all bought age.

When youth is spent
A penny at a fair,
The old men tell
Of the bargains there.
There was this and that
For a price and a wage,
But when they came away
They had all bought age.


A reader, having seen one of the hokku of Bashō, asked me exactly what is meant by the term “floating world.”  Was Bashō in it?  Are we in it?

It all depends on the sense in which we understand the term.  Here is the hokku in question (an autumn verse):

Kiso no tochi   ukiyo no hito no    miyage kana
Kiso  ‘s horse-chestnuts    floating-world ‘s people ‘s souvenir kana

We can translate as:

Horse-chestnuts from Kiso —
A souvenir for people
Of the floating world.

Kiso was a region in the mountains, isolated from the urban areas of Japan.  Chinese horse chestnuts grew there, and they were often considered a kind of symbol of the isolated, hermit life, and were even used as food by hermits.  so Bashō says he will bring them back to the people of the “floating world” as a souvenir.

From this alone we can see that Bashō made a distinction between a rural, hermit life (which of course he considered the “poetic” life) and the life of the city, which at that time meant primarily life in the big city of Edo, which later became Tokyo.

So for Bashō, the “floating world” meant, in part, the life of the denizens of the city with their sensuous pleasures, their plays, their restaurants and teahouses.  And though it meant in particular the way of life in the Yoshiwara, the “red light” district of the city, Bashō intends it here in a more general sense to mean those who are caught up in the life and entertainments of the “world” — exemplified by life in the city — as opposed to the rural countryside.

We can understand the meaning of the term better if we realize that it is, to some extent, the equivalent of the Chinese Buddhist term “The World of Dust,” which means the world of going after pleasures of the senses, after money, fame, and delights.  In fact the term ukiyo (uki = floating, yo = world), if written differently in Japanese but pronounced the same, also means “The World of Sorrow,” which is the world in which we all live, the world of birth and death and suffering.  A person on a spiritual path seeks to transcend this floating world, this world of sorrow, by turning away from the pleasures and interests that obsess and absorb the ordinary person.

So what is the “floating world”?  Very specifically, it is the Yoshiwara district and its life.  More generally, it is the pleasure, money, and fame-seeking life of the city.  But even more generally, it is the world of all people not on a spiritual path, of people spending their days and years in trying to have a good time and make money, people who do not give a thought to a simple life and to spiritual development.

For Bashō, the horse chestnuts of Kiso had the underlying significance of a simple, hermit-like life, which again he considered to be the “poetic” life.  In contrast to that was the “floating world,” the world of those caught by the illusions of pleasure and money and position, and it was to those people in “the world” that Bashō wished to bring the horse chestnuts of Kiso.  It is a distinction between the “worldly” and the “unworldly.”

That this was Bashō’s understanding is confirmed by a variant of the hokku in which the simple term yo (the world) is used instead of uki-yo = (the floating world).

We can see, then, that this is a hokku of contrasts — the rural horse chestnuts on one side, the city dwellers — those in the World of Dust, on the other — and both are linked by Bashō, who unifies the two.

It is the kind of hokku that is understood in Japan but does not “travel well,” meaning that it requires too much cultural explanation to be effective when translated from one language and culture to another.

And by the way, the horse chestnuts in question are not the chestnuts (Castanea sativa) that we roast at Christmas.  They are a coarser, bitter kind (Aesculus chinensis) that require considerable preparation to make them edible because they have a high toxin content.  They are more like the horse chestnuts known in Britain as “conkers,” and often in America as “Buckeyes,” generally considered inedible.



When we talk about season in hokku, what do we mean exactly?

Well, everyone knows that in temperate climates we traditionally have four seasons — spring, summer, autumn, and winter.  Every hokku we write belongs to one of these seasons, which is why when we write a hokku we mark it with the name of the season, so its classification will not be lost.

However, in actual writing, we have more divisions than simply those four.  We really have:

1.  Spring comes;
2.  Early spring;
3.  Mid-spring;
4.  Late spring;
5.  Spring departs;
6.  Summer comes;
7.  Early summer;
8.  Mid-summer;
9.  Late summer;
10.  Summer departs
11.  Autumn comes;
12.  Early autumn;
13.  Mid-autumn;
14.  Late autumn;
15.  Autumn departs
16.  Winter comes;
17.  Early winter;
18.  Mid-winter;
19.  Late winter;
20.  Winter departs.

We often use these or very similar terms in hokku, so practically there are twenty seasonal divisions in our hokku, by which, when desired, we can focus not just on a particular season, but even on a particular time of season.

But getting back to the original four, these seasonal divisions are not arbitrary.  They depend on the relation of the axis of the earth to the sun.  Summer means maximum sun; winter means minimum sun.  Both autumn and spring mean moderate sun, one with the sun declining and the other with the sun increasing.

Now obviously this “declining sun” and “increasing sun” correspond exactly to our great friends in hokku, Yin and Yang.  Sunlight is Yang; darkness is Yin.  So the height of summer is maximum Yang, the depth of winter maximum Yin.  Spring is growing Yang and declining Yin, and autumn is growing Yin and declining Yang.

It is obvious, then, that the seasons are not artificial divisions.  Further, in hokku, our seasons do not change exactly in keeping with the calendar dates.  Some years spring may come early, or summer may arrive late.  That means our attitude toward season depends not just on calendar dates, but also on what is actually happening in Nature.

When hokku began to be replaced with other kinds of verse around the turn of the 20th century, gradually some abandoned the seasonal connection, considering it too bothersome or outdated.  In doing so, they were writing non-hokku verses, because season and hokku are indissolubly linked.  Just as in Nature everything takes place in a seasonal context, so it does also in hokku.

One of the greatest differences between old hokku and modern hokku is in how we keep the seasonal connection.  In modern hokku it is done by marking each verse with the season in which it is written, and also in some verses, as seen above, by using an actual seasonal “focus term” such as “early summer” within the verse.

In old hokku, however, the matter was far more complex.  Old hokku used “season words” — terms which could only signify a certain season.  “Clear water,” for example, signified a summer verse.  To learn such season indicators became a very complex and time-consuming matter, and whole dictionaries of such terms were compiled.  Often it took years to become familiar with the terms and to learn to use them well.

Of course in old hokku there was a secondary layer to the use of specific “season words” as well.  It became a cultural matter, a literary convention, and hokku developed a set of fixed subjects.  Whatever its advantages, all of this led to complexity and increasing artificiality, which is just the opposite of what we want the connection between a hokku and the season to be.

That is why in English we use simple seasonal classification.  It is more faithful to Nature, more faithful to the actual times and changes of the seasons.  Writing our verses in seasonal context keeps our thoughts in harmony with the seasons.  That is why in hokku we do not write a verse out of season.  We do not, for example, write a spring verse in autumn.  Similarly, we do not read an autumn verse in spring, or a winter verse in summer, and so on.  To do so would put our thoughts out of harmony with the season — and in keeping with the spiritual roots of hokku, we do not want to live in the past or in the future — we want to live in the present.  In fact that is the only place we can be — the ever-changing present.

So as other kinds of verse ignore or abandon a seasonal context, it is maintained as integral to hokku.  Without its connection to Nature and season, hokku would no longer be hokku, just another kind of brief verse.

To remind you of more aspects of the seasonal connection in hokku, I will continue here with an earlier posting on the subject.  It will repeat some of what I have already said, but perhaps that will help to fix the matter in your memory:

It is very easy to superficially notice, or to unthinkingly gloss over, the critical importance of season in hokku.  It is not going too far to say that hokku is the verse of the seasons — that the REAL subject of every verse is the season in which it is written.

Seen from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the writers of old hokku placed so much emphasis on the importance of season that subjects were classified by season, and these classifications — specific words indicating the season and incorporated into the hokku — were compiled into dictionaries.

The great advantage of such a system is that one had only to mention the word in the verse and the season was evoked.  For example the word “haze” in a hokku let the reader know immediately that it was a “Spring” hokku.  That was a great benefit.  But there was also a negative side.  The classification of season words became artificial to some extent, and the numbers of them so great that learning how to properly use them took years.

That is why in hokku as I teach it, we still emphasize season, but no longer keep lists or classifications of season words.  Instead we categorize every hokku by season.  Each verse — when written — is marked with the season.  And when shared that seasonal classification is passed on with the verse.

There is a very serious potential danger in this system too, however, if it is understood only superficially and not deeply.

The danger is precisely this:  Some writers think that merely categorizing a verse by season makes it a verse OF that season — that if I write, for example, about getting a drink of water as autumn begins, that automatically makes it an autumn verse.

This is a very serious error, and it is related to the equally serious error of thinking that hokku are just assemblages of random things.

The whole point of the use of season words in old hokku — and the point of seasonal classification in modern hokku — is to express the essential nature of the season through events in which that essential nature manifests.

This is not really as difficult as it first sounds.  We all know that pumpkins, scarecrows, and falling leaves are manifestations of autumn.  Even a child recognizes them as autumn subjects.  BUT THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.

Did you ever wonder why I talk so much about such things as Yin and Yang?  It is because they are direct pointers not only to what is happening in a season, but to what manifests — what evokes the essential nature — of a season.

NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON.   And so of course, things that do not, are not really appropriate for hokku of that season, though they may be appropriate for many other kinds of verse.

If you want to write hokku, then, you must be aware of the character of  each season, of its inherent qualities.  One can begin such learning — which is really a becoming aware — very simply, and then gradually build up a deeper understanding of these things.  Anyone knows intuitively, for example, that spring is what is young and fresh and new, summer is maturity, autumn is declining and withering, and winter is the prevalence of darkness, cold and stillness.

In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin.  That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature.  In the day, morning is growing Yang; noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang, and the middle of night is maximum Yin.  In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.

In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it changes to its opposite and gives way to growing Yin.

Summer, then, is extremely Yang.  That is manifested in its heat.  Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness.  Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows.  Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows.  The same applies to moisture, which is Yin.  In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.

Consider all of this carefully.  We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology.  But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.

I will explain all of this in more detail as we progress.  The important things to remember now are that Hokku, the verse of Nature, is also the verse of the seasons; and further, that there are things appropriate to each season because they manifest its character.  And those things that do not show us the character of the season are not appropriate for hokku written in that season.

I hope this comes as a revelation to many of you.

Knowing this explains why specific season words were so critical to old hokku.  They were an attempt to express a season by listing things in which the character of the season was manifested.  Though it had its flaws and was complex and took a long time to learn, we could say that the system of specific season words is nonetheless in a sense the “easy” way;  what is theoretically appropriate to a season is already decided and codified in a dictionary of season words.

But in modern hokku more is demanded of us.  We are able to avoid the artificiality and complexity to which the use of specific season words eventually led because we replace them with simple seasonal classification of each verse.  But as a consequence, we must become  far more personally aware of what is inherently, aesthetically appropriate to each season.  Otherwise no matter how we classify a verse by season, if we do not understand the inherent nature and character of a season and the resulting aesthetics appropriate to it, we will fail miserably at hokku.

What this means is that we must become more like our ancestors, who were keenly aware of each season, its weather, its changes, characteristics, plants, foods and cultural associations.



In hokku aesthetics, we find that it often favors that which is undecided, undetermined, incomplete.  We see that in two verses which superficially appear very different.  The first is by Chora:

The summer moon;
On the other side of the river —
Who is it?

Old readers here will immediately recognize this as a “question” hokku, a verse in which the whole point is that the question remains unanswered, leaving us with that “not-knowing” feeling.

Taigi wrote a verse that is not a question hokku:

The bridge fallen,
People stand on the bank;
The summer moon.

Blyth — because the people are standing on a bank — assumes that the bridge has washed away, and in fact he so translates it.  But the point I want to make here is that we see the bridge has collapsed; we see the people on the bank staring at where it had been.  What will they do? How will they cross?  How will it affect their lives?  None of this is told us.  We are left with that uncertainty, that sense of “not-knowing,” and here you see precisely what this verse has in common with a “question” hokku, even though it is not a question hokku.  Both have that sense of something unanswered, unfinished, incomplete.  And it is that particular feeling that such hokku wish to evoke.

It is worth mentioning in passing that hokku avoids violence and disasters.  Occasionally we will find something rather borderline, like Chora’s verse about the fallen bridge, but it is not really over the boundary, and its point, as already mentioned, is in what the verse evokes.

We can see, however, that when people began to change the hokku into something else near the beginning of the 20th century, an un-hokku-like harshness was introduced, as in this verse by Shiki, who in this case crosses the line into a kind of verse alien to the spirit of the hokku:

Without a home —
Twenty thousand people;
The summer moon.

Shiki wrote this about the great fire of Takaoka, apparently that in 1900.  This is more journalism than verse.  The catastrophe and its scope are not right for the aesthetics of hokku, and this, along with the gradual and increasing introduction of technology, led to new kinds of verse that diverged ever more sharply from the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.

But of course these later kinds of verse increasingly and rapidly lost also the influence of Buddhist spirituality.  That is why we make a clear distinction between the aesthetics of hokku and those of other kinds of verse that may have been loosely inspired by or descended from the hokku.

Incidentally, all three of these verses may be found on two facing pages in Blyth.  All but the first are my translations.  The first — by Chora — is in Blyth’s translation, which one can hardly better.



What I like to call the “old style” hokku — meaning the best hokku in the period before Onitsura and Bashō — often, as we have seen in the hokku of Sōgi, combine two things and then add a third to unite them all in harmony.

Here is such a verse by Sōgi:

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

The later technique however — which we most often use — is somewhat different.  Instead of three rather equal-seeming things, as in Sōgi, we get more of a sense of two things combined, or rather a subject-action and then another subject that completes, as in this verse by Shōha:

A boy
Getting a dog to run;
The summer moon.

This kind of hokku is quite familiar to us.  We know it as the “standard” hokku, which uses the setting, subject, action pattern.  In Shōha’s verse it manifests like this:

A boy (subject)
Getting a dog to run; (action)
The summer moon. (setting)

Remember that the setting is usually the “large” or “encompassing” part of the hokku.

Bashō wrote

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

In that verse the subject is the octopus traps.  The action is the fleeting dreams, and the setting, again, is the “large” or “encompassing” element, the summer moon.  One can see from this that we need not align setting, subject and action rigidly.  In hokku they are fluid, and can change position.

The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote,

Touched by the line
Of the fishing pole —
The summer moon.

This is one of those verses requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, who will see that the line of the fishing pole is touching the summer moon reflected in the water.  Speaking loosely, we could say that the summer moon is the setting, the line of the fishing pole is the subject, and “touched by” is the action.  But of course here the summer moon functions as both setting and as primary subject.  That again should alert the reader that in composing, we need not be too rigid in our categories and arrangements.

But there is a bit more to say about Chiyo-ni’s verse.  In hokku aesthetics, a sense of transience is very important.  Those who created and practiced hokku were very aware that life is short and all human endeavors fleeting.  And they were very aware that the world as we see it is transitory and uncertain, like the reflection of the moon in a summer river.  That feeling is very important to hokku because it is a part of life.

Its presence in hokku comes from the Buddhist teaching of anicca —impermanence.  The three “seals” of existence are dukkha — the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of things; anicca — the un-lastingness of things; and anatta — the lack of a real self in what we customarily regard as our “self.”  In spiritual literature life is often compared to a dream from which only those who sincerely devote themselves to the practice of spiritual “cultivation” — meditation and right action — are likely to awake.  The moon in Buddhist literature is often a symbol for enlightenment.  But in hokku things are not symbols or metaphors for other things.  Instead all of these associations “soak into” hokku and influence how they affect us.

It is all in keeping with the old lines from the Forest of Zen Sayings:

Scoop up water, and the moon is in your hands;
Handle flowers, and the scent soaks into your garments.

That is exactly what gave rise to hokku originally.  The culture of Japan was permeated with Buddhist thought, and just as the scent of flowers soaks into one’s garments, so the fragrance of Buddhist spirituality soaked into hokku.  And that was true even in writers of hokku who were not particularly spiritual.  It is this underlying spiritual attitude toward life that made and still makes hokku what it was and is.



Kitō wrote:

A summer shower;
The exhausted horse
Comes back to life

I always see the muscles of the fatigued horse begin twitching with life shortly after the first drops of cool rain strike it.

We feel the sudden energy of the falling summer rain in the sudden renewed energy of the horse — activity in the rain, activity in the horse, so superficially one might think this verse exhibits harmony of “likeness.”  Well, superficially, it does.

However, there is something more to it.  Things exposed to a Yin environment over time tend to be Yang in nature; things exposed to a Yang environment over time tend to be Yin in nature.

Take, for example, the climate of Hawai’i, which is very warm, very Yang.  The fruits that grow there are very Yin, very sweet and cooling.  And people who live in a very Yang environment over countless centuries, such as Africa or the South Pacific, tend to develop “Yin”- colored skin, that is, dark skin, while those people who live in a very “Yin” environment such as Norway or Ireland tend to develop “Yang” -colored skin — that is, light skin (dark is Yin, light is Yang)

The best quality ginseng — a tonic root that is very “Yang” in herbal medicine — grows in the coldest mountains of North Korea, a very “Yin” environment.

How does all of that apply to Kitō’s verse?  Well, the horse is exhausted by the Yang heat of summer and activity.  The Yin rain refreshes the creature, and as a consequence he returns to his Yang, energetic state.  So we can see that though the initial appearance of this verse is one of harmony of similarity, it is really showing us harmony of difference as the Yin rain brings about a Yang reaction in the horse.

We also learn from this that Yin and Yang are not absolutes; they are always working in relation to one another, always causing changing states and effects in their countless interactions.



Taigi wrote:

A summer shower;
What a sound breaks out
Atop the forest!

The sound of which Taigi speaks is the sudden sound of countless drops of rain striking the countless leaves of the forest canopy.  It is an awesome sound, the sound of that particular time when the warm rain of summer and the broad summer leaves of the forest come together.  We feel the abundance of rain, the abundance of leaves, in the great abundance of sound.



Those who read a posting here only now and then will learn little or nothing.  Those who read here regularly, with attention, will gain over time a good understanding of the basic principles of hokku.

For example, I recently discussed the two kinds of harmony in hokku, and I discussed the importance of Yin and Yang.

Let’s take a look at a verse by Kyoroku:

The sun shines
On white cotton cloth;
Cloud peaks above.

If you have been reading with diligence here, you will be saying to yourself, “Oh, that is harmony of similarity!  The sun is bright, the cotton cloth is white, and the clouds above are also white.  And you are likely to also add, “The sunlight is Yang, the white color of the cotton cloth is Yang, and the white of the clouds is also Yang!

That was an easy one, a rather obvious example.

But here is a hokku by Tohō:

Heat waves;
The sand of the cliff falls
Grain by grain.

Eventually one will realize that the heat waves are something temporary, transitory.  But paradoxically so is the sandy cliff, which is falling grain by grain.  So in spite of the vastly different time scale, this too is a hokku with harmony of similarity.

In a way, the latter verse is like the old saying,

The morning glory differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.

In other words, both are transitory, passing — just on a different time scale.

Incidentally, readers of Blyth’s translations — particularly American readers — are likely to be misled by his translation of Tohō’s verse:

Summer colts;
The sand of the cliff
Falls grain by grain.

Americans are likely to see young horses frolicking about in sunshine near the sandy cliff.  But “summer colts” is a largely British term that means simply the undulating air near the ground on a warm day — or in plain “American,” heat waves.  The Japanese term — for those who are interested — is kagerō.


I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Yesterday we saw a verse that, while dealing with emotion, treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

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

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.



The fundamental principle of hokku is that it is about Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature — set in the context of the seasons.  Here is a hokku by Shōha emphasizing the human part of that.  It is particularly appropriate to the last few weeks of weather where I am:

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

This verse is not about a boy or a kite or the rain.  It is about a-boy-and-a-kite-and-the-rain, all as one thing.  Full of impatient and frustrated hope, the poor little guy waits and waits for the rain to stop so he may fly his kite.  And his parents feel his pain, the suffering of childhood.

Without the rain there would be no hokku; without the kite there would be no hokku; and without the child there would be no hokku.  It takes them all together to present us with this verse, a verse that shows us “humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.”

Shiki wrote:

In the water jug
A frog is floating;
Summer rain.

This is a very watery, Yin verse — water in the jug, water in the rain, and a watery frog.  It makes one think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s verse,

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrellas here,

And on the ships at sea.



One cannot compose hokku without a form, and the form of English-language hokku is simple and practical.  One need not worry about what it is to be because it already exists and serves quite well.

A hokku in English consists of three lines, the center often (but not always) a little longer than the other two, which are approximately equal in length.

As a guide for length, hokku in English has as its standard a sequence of 2, 3, and 2 “essential words.”  Essential words, as the term is used in hokku, means those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar.  That means we need not count articles such as “the,” “a,” or “an.”  Nor need we often count prepositions such as “to,” “from,” “under,” “in,” and “on.”  That leaves us largely with nouns, verbs and an occasional personal pronoun.

There is a hokku by Bonchō:

The razor,
Rusted in one night;
The summer rains.

The essential words in that verse would be:

rusted one night
summer rains

That gives us a pattern of 1-3-2 essential words, which is close enough to the standard.  We may also go slightly over the standard, and often we will use precisely the standard of 2-3-2.  One need not be too rigid about it, because the purpose of the standard is merely to ensure that we do not begin adding needless words, putting too much into a hokku and violating the principle of poverty.

Punctuation is very important in English-language hokku.  It has two related purposes:  It indicates the length of pause and the nature of separation or connection between two lines — working in a somewhat “musical” sense, and equally important, it guides the reader smoothly through the verse without confusion.  Both of these are significant in how a reader experiences a verse.

Punctuation, like the overall form, is something already determined in English-language hokku.  Once one knows the significance of each mark, it really becomes quite easy:

To understand hokku punctuation, we first must know that every verse consists of two parts, a longer and a shorter.  There is always a punctuation mark separating them, and there is always a punctuation mark at the end of the verse.

The two parts of a hokku may be separated by:

1.  A semicolon (;) — this gives a definite, strong meditative pause.
2.  A comma (,) — this gives a brief connective pause.
3.  A question mark (?) — which of course indicates a question.
4.  A dash ( — ) indicating a long connective pause.

A hokku usually ends with a period (.), more rarely with an exclamation mark (!), a question mark (?)  and occasionally ellipses (….)

Finally, hokku in English have the first letter of each line capitalized, and of course the first letter of any proper noun (a name, such as “Spirit Lake”) is capitalized as well.

This form — this system of lines, of punctuation, of capitalization — works extremely well and does everything we need to do in a hokku.  Because it is all settled and standardized, there is nothing to excite quibbles.  It works and it works well, requiring no change.

Knowing all this, if one sees a verse that looks vaguely like hokku but is not capitalized or punctuated, or has merely a hyphen as a separating mark, we know it is not a hokku, but some other kind of brief verse.  I am speaking in all cases here of hokku written in English, of course, though the same general principles apply to other European languages.

I have already said that every hokku consists of two parts — a longer part and a shorter part — and that these are separated by a punctuation mark.  We see that in a verse by Kikaku:

Yesterday in the East,
Today in the West.

Notice that each line begins with a capital letter;
Notice that the internal separation mark in this verse is an exclamation point, which indicates something unusual or unexpected;
Notice that the verse ends with a period;
And finally, note that the hokku consists of a pattern of 1-2-2 essential words, quite close enough to our 2-3-2 standard.

That is a quick summary of the hokku form in English.  Yet a verse can be correctly punctuated and capitalized, and be the right general length, and still fail as a hokku.  That is why without knowing the aesthetics and techniques, there is really no hokku.  The outer form is the shell, like the shell of a walnut.  And as with a walnut, it is what is inside that makes it worthwhile.  That means to practice hokku, one must devote considerable time to its aesthetics and techniques, to learning its overall spirit and how it is applied when one writes.  Having covered the form of the hokku, we are now ready to go on to that deeper topic, to what really makes a hokku a hokku and not something else.