It is always disappointing to see how the creators of modern haiku trivialize, dismiss, or ignore the writings of the very person from whom they could have learned the most, were they not so self-willed and self-absorbed — R. H. Blyth.

Blyth talks of how “things” are of critical importance, telling the reader that “It is in virtue of its lack of something that a thing has value,” and he backs this up with a quote from the Zenrinkushu — the forest of Zen sayings:

The tree manifests the bodily power of the wind;
The wave exhibits the spiritual nature of the moon

Blyth tells us in response, “If the tree were strong enough it would manifest nothing.  If the wave were rigid, the moon’s nature could not be expressed in it.”

Blyth is telling us here not just the significance of things, but also the requirements for writing about them — for writing hokku.  It is just the opposite of the modern haiku attitude.  One must be empty of “self nature.”

To explain further, Blyth quotes the German “mystic” Meister Eckhart:

Sollt ihr also ein Sohn sein, so müsst ihr ablegen and von euch scheiden alles, was eine Besonderheit an euch ausmacht.

If you would become a son, then you must put aside and separate from all that makes an individuality of you.”

In other words, Blyth is saying that the writer of hokku must “empty himself” of the desire to “express himself,” to “become a poet,” to “make a name for himself,” and it is only because of that emptiness — like the emptiness of a mirror undimmed by dust — that the writer can truly experience and express the “things” that are the primary matter of hokku.

This ability to discard self-will and the urge to be noticed is something the modern haiku community as a whole has never been willing to do nor even willing to consider as desirable or beneficial.

Blyth tells us, “In relation to every circumstance, we are to be like the servants at the Feast of Cana:  Whatever he saith unto you, do it.”

That is virtually an impossibility for the greater portion of writers of modern haiku, because they are too busy trying to be clever or witty or aesthetic or “known” — trying to be “poets” writing “poetry.”  But Blyth tells us to give all that up.  Simply empty yourself, become a servant to Nature, and “Whatever he saith unto you, do it.”

The “he” here is not this or that teacher, but rather Nature.  A writer of hokku does not say, “Now I am going to write a verse about my reaction to the war” or “I am going to compose a few lines on how I feel about my boyfriend/girlfriend leaving me.”  Instead, a writer of hokku becomes empty of self-will and self-nature, open to the promptings of Nature expressed in thing-events, just as Blyth has said:

The tree manifests the bodily power of the wind;
The wave exhibits the spiritual nature of the moon.

Thus the writer of hokku manifests flowers blooming in spring, a hawk circling high in the blue sky of summer, a golden yellow leaf falling in autumn, the winter wind blowing in through cracks in the wall.  He or she does this to the extent that he or she is empty of self-will, empty of self-nature, empty of what Eckhart called Besonderheit — individuality — what we in hokku call the “self.”

Blyth does not beat around the bush.  He tells us quite plainly, “A poet sees things as they are in proportion as he is selfless.”

But that is precisely contrary to the attitude of modern haiku, which, like much of modern poetry, wants not to “put aside” the self, but rather to express it and make it more obvious.  That is exactly why modern haiku denigrates Blyth even while generally misunderstanding him.  Note that Blyth does not say a self-willed poet does not “see” things, but that he “does not see things as they are.”  That is because he — or she — is too busy covering them over with “thinking,” with personal desires and wishes and intellectual abstractions and whittering commentary — the very kinds of things that constitute what most people think of as “poetry.”

The way of a hokku writer, however, is precisely that which Blyth describes:

The flowers say ‘Bloom!’ and we bloom in them.  The wind blows and we sway in the leaves.”

In our school of hokku we express the same by saying that the writer must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  The mind of the writer should be like a quiet pond in which the moon may be reflected.  This “mirror-mind” of the writer of hokku can exist only when one puts aside self-will and self-absorption. One must give up the obsession with the products of the “thinking” mind, and it is by doing so that one allows things to have their own inherent value — not as something added to them by the “poet,” as one might paint roses red — but as they are in themselves when the mind of the writer is emptied and still.



R. H. Blyth remarks that “only in Japan can we find hundreds of ‘poems’ written on the subject of heat.”  That he puts “poems” in quotes is significant, and indicates — as I always tell students — that we should not confuse what we are accustomed to think of as poetry with hokku.  For the most part, hokku is nothing at all like conventional Western poetry.   We may accurately describe hokku — following Blyth — as “poetry-sensation, the sensation perceived poetically.”

Now sensation means simply an experience of one or more of the five senses — taste, touch, smell hearing, and seeing.  Heat and cold fall under touch, given that they are our contact with the presence or absence of heat.  So please note, dear readers, that there is a poetry of the sensations, and that poetry is precisely as Blyth describes it — “the sensation perceived poetically.” And that is what we find in hokku.

Now it should be obvious to those with some knowledge of English poetry that there is precious little in it that can in any way equate with this notion — that sensation is in itself poetic.  Yet there is poetry in cold, and poetry in heat.  Not the poetry of playing with words, of being clever in verse, but in the sensation itself when perceived by a human.

It was the genius of the Japanese — of the writers of hokku — that they realized this, thus the large numbers of hokku on heat and cold, on each separately, and on the meeting of the two.

There is a woman’s poetry of heat (Sono-jo):

The child on my back,
Playing with my hair;
The heat!

There is a crabby man’s poetry of heat (Shingi):

He says nothing
To anyone who comes;
The heat!

There is the unfortunate woman’s poetry of heat (Yayū):

The prostitute
Sells her sweaty body;
The heat!

There is the laborer’s poetry of heat (Shiki):

In the fisherman’s hut,
The smell of dried fish;
The heat!

There is the (mistreated) animal’s poetry of heat (Chōsō):

Dressing him,
The monkey gets sulky;
The heat!

One could go on and on, but I will stop with Hyakuri’s

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

How very different in method from the similar English excerpt from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge):

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Let’s look again at Hyakuri’s hokku:

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

Heat is yang.  The ebbing of the tide is yin.  Something unmoving, in this case the ship, is also yin.  In nature we find that paradoxically, yang tends to create yin.  In the desert we find cacti, which are watery and yin on the inside, just as fruits in the heat of Hawai’i are also yin.  That is the effect we get in this verse.  The great heat is manifesting itself in the unmoving yin of the immobile ship, and we feel it also in the ebb tide — not as a cause-effect occurrence, but just because of the “weak” yin feeling in the tide.

One of the most important realizations the beginning student of hokku can make is that the distinctiveness of hokku is in its “poetry-sensation,” as it enables us to experience “the sensation perceived poetically.”



Is hokku difficult?  The simple answer is no.

The only difficulty in hokku comes from what we add to it from our own minds.  Really, a hokku is just a meaningful experience of the senses expressed in the context of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

One can, of course, find old Japanese hokku that were difficult, because old hokku had not lost its literary connections.  So often an old hokku cannot be fully understood without knowing that it used a phrase from this or that Chinese poem, or an allusion to an historical or literary event.  I have no interest in such hokku, because they are not hokku at its best.  They are just another form of hokku as a game.  To some it was a word game, to others a literary game —
“Guess the puzzle.”

What was worthwhile in old hokku was its expression of an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.  And there is nothing difficult about that beyond the willingness to give up our “thinking” and attachment to the notion of “self” for a while, and to just go with actual experience.

Yes, one has to learn how to punctuate, one has to learn that a hokku has a “cut” between the shorter and longer parts, one has to learn how to create internal harmony in a hokku, but really these are easy things.  It is Nature that does all the work — Nature that creates an experience we feel to be significant.

Some people like to give the impression that hokku is difficult and mysterious, but it is not that at all.  The best hokku are straightforward and direct, like this summer verse by Taigi:

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

That could have been written about most any place in America on a hot day.

Our modern hokku has none of the excessive characteristics that did sometimes make old hokku difficult, because modern hokku takes what was best in old hokku and sets that as the standard.  We can cheerfully forget all the rest and leave it to scholars and academics, because it is just the chaff of the history of hokku.



I am going to take a short time off from posting here — just a few days, not long.  If you read this site and enjoy it, I hope you will take the opportunity of this brief intermission to send me a note telling me so — or even if there is something you want to “get off your chest,” feel free to do that.

Also, I am very open to suggestions for topics.  Are you having trouble with some aspect of hokku?  Is there something you do not yet quite understand?  Feel free to ask, and I will try to respond either directly or in a posting when I am back in a few days.

You can contact me by clicking on the “LEAVE A COMMENT” link at the bottom of this or any article I have posted.  Your comment will not be seen by the other blog readers — only by me.

I want to thank those of you who do read this site regularly, and I am always glad to hear from old visitors and new.



Issa wrote:

The one-foot waterfall
Also makes sounds;
The evening cool.

This is Issa’s version of “The morning glory that lives but a day differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.”  A one-foot waterfall, like a greater waterfall, also has the pleasant, soothing and cooling “sound of water.”

Like many of Issa’s hokku, this example is subjective; it adds “thinking,” seen in the word “also.”


Onitsura wrote this summer hokku:

The bellies of trout seen
In the shallows.

This is a “standard” hokku, meaning it has setting, subject, and action.  The setting is the evening; the subject is the bellies of the trout; the action is “seen in the shallows.”  Of course the real action is the movement of the trout that shows their light underside.

This is a very “Yin” verse.  The evening is yin, the shallows are yin, the light bellies of the trout are a yin “color.”  The weaker Yang element is in the remaining light of day and in the movement of the fish.