R. H. Blyth called this work by Tao Qian (Tao Yuan-ming, c. 365-427) and translated by Arthur Waley “the best translation… of the best poem in the world.”


Swiftly the years, beyond recall,
Solemn the stillness of this fair morning.
I will clothe myself in spring-clothing
And visit the slopes of the Eastern Hill.
By the mountain-stream a mist hovers,
Hovers a moment, then scatters.
There comes a wind blowing from the south
That brushes the fields of new corn .

Waley’s version — good as it is — is not a precise translation of the original. Nonetheless, his version is effective, which is why Blyth was so fond of it. Some day when I have time I may give a closer translation.

I should add that Americans should read the word “corn” in the last line as meaning “grain.” The fields are not of corn (maize) in the American sense, but of corn (grain) in the British sense. Picture a field of green, grassy blades like Whitman’s “leaves of grass,” with the wind gently sweeping over them.

Also, the “Qian” in Tao Qian is pronounced like “Chen,” but in the front rather than the middle of the mouth. Just say the “ch” close to the front teeth.



Today I will talk briefly about a poem by the Chinese writer Bai Juyi (772 -846, also written as Po Chu-yi).

You may recall from previous discussions of Chinese poetry here that most Chinese poems  are written in couplets (pairs of lines), with five characters to a line in some poems, seven in others.

Layered Mountains and Dense Woods, by Zhuran, ...

I will translate the first two pairs of couplets very literally, so you may see how Chinese poems work.  Keep in mind that literary Chinese is not the same grammatically as modern spoken Chinese; literary Chinese tends to be much more compact and telegraphic, rather like the telegraphic nature of old Japanese hokku.  Another thing to keep in mind is that Chinese characters have no inherent phonetic significance.  That is why the same character can be pronounced quite differently by people in northern China (Mandarin Chinese) and southeast China (Cantonese), by people in Korea and people in Japan.  One could even read Chinese entirely as English words, but of course it would not be English grammatically; it would be English words in old literary Chinese grammar.

Each word in the lines below represents one Chinese character, so it is easy to see that this is a five-character poem.

The poem is called Sixty-six:

Ill know heart power decrease
Old perceive light shade swift
Five ten eight return come
This year six ten six

In the first line, “heart” in Chinese actually encompasses both heart and mind.  In Buddhist texts the translation “mind” is generally preferred.  The Chinese generally viewed heart and mind as the same.

In the second line, “light shade” is composed of characters meaning “bright” and “Yin” — the same “Yin” as in Yin and Yang. Together, as light and shadow, they are used to indicate the passage of time, somewhat reminiscent of these lines from H. G. Well’s excellent story The Time Machine:

As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a
black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to
fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky,
leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day.”

In the third and fourth lines, “five ten eight” is the Chinese way of saying “fifty-eight” — five tens and eight; six ten six, then, is of course six tens and six — sixty-six.

Now here is my rather loose version of the poem:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.
At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.
All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.
My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.
I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.
It is only the sound of water flowing,
But now it never wearies me. 

We see in this poem of Bai Juyi (pronounce it like “By Joo-ee”) the kind of objectivity that is also characteristic of good hokku.  He does not give us lots of thinking and commentary.  He just tells us the situation, tells us what is happening.  Even when he is obviously talking about himself, he does it the same objective way in which he speaks about the plants greening around the pond, or the tall rock against which he leans to look at the distant hills.

It is not hard to see why such Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty  had a very strong influence on hokku.  We have already noted the objectivity characteristic of good hokku.  But did you also notice the sense of the passage of time, the feeling of constant change and impermanence, the transience that is also a major characteristic of hokku?  And, of course, there is the very strong feeling of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, which is the subject matter of hokku.

Then too, of course, we see the progression of the Yin-Yang process.  Bai-Juyi feels the Yang in his body decreasing, the Yin growing stronger as his body and mind age and weaken.  And he has watched the cycle of Yin and Yang each year since he returned to his old home, as he tells us through the annual greening of the pond grasses in spring.

Hokku differs from such poems, obviously, in its brevity.  It also uses irregularity — a long part and a short part — whereas Chinese poetry is very regular; it is composed in sequences of equal-length couplets, as we saw in my literal rendering of the first part of Bai Juyi’s five-character poem, Sixty-six.

Now here is a little more information, for those of you who like to write poems in the Chinese manner, the kind of nature poems I like to call “Dao” poems, after the Dao of the old Chinese sage Lao-Tze, author of the Dao De Jing — the “Way-Virtue Classic.”

If we look closely at the structure of Bai Juyi’s poem, we can see how the two lines of each couplet relate to one another; for example:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.

See how the sequence of the first matches the sequence of the second?  Look at the pairs

ill/old;   I know/I perceive;   mind weakened/time passing.

Now look at the next couplet:

At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.

He tells us in the first line what happened at age 58; in the second he tells us what is happening now.

Let’s go on:

All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.

Notice how he pairs the whitening of his hair in the first line with the greening and sprouting of the pond grasses in the second?

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

In the first line his children have grown to adulthood; in the second thicket shrubs have grown into trees.

Now see what he does in the next two lines:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

In the first line, we can think of him looking up; note the hills and high rock (Yang elements — remember “high” is Yang);
In the second line, we can think of him looking down; he sees the stream (water and other low things are Yin) flowing (downward flow is Yin) through the bamboos.

I hope that gives budding writers of Dao poems — Chinese-style Nature verse — some hints about how to join two lines in a couplet by linking them through meaning.

If you give this some thought — and if you are a regular reader here — it will probably remind you of the system of internal reflection in hokku, the technique in which we use combinations of things that reflect one another in some way.   We also see examples in Bai Juyi’s couplets of the same principles of harmony we find in hokku.  You will recall that hokku uses harmony of similarity, which we see in Bai Juyi as, for example:

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

As already mentioned, the growing of the children matches the growing of the trees — harmony of similarity.

We also find the technique of harmony of contrast, which we see also in hokku:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

You will recall those “looking up/looking down” lines.  We can think of them as having this feeling:

Looking up, I see the distant hills; looking down, I see the stream through the bamboos.

One line gives us the “high” (the hills and rock), the other the low (the flowing water of the stream at the base of the bamboos).

Those familiar with old Chinese poetry — or at least translations of it — will recognize the same technique in the last couplet of the well-known (almost too well-known, in fact) poem by Li Bai (Li Po):

Raising my head, I see the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I think of my old home.

Bai Juyi was more subtle in his use of “up/down,” but then Bai Juyi was a better poet than Li Bai.

Keep in mind that a Chinese-style poem is just a sequence of couplets, and the length of the sequence — how many couplets are used — is entirely up to the writer.



As regular readers here know, I treat many of the verses of Shiki as hokku because they are hokku in form and content, in spite of his use of the revisionist term “haiku” for what he wrote.

Melting Snow On the flank of Catstye Cam

Knowing that, we are in a position to examine one of his verses of early spring:

With snow melting,
The village  releases
The horses.

If you have been a diligent reader of hokku postings here, you will recognize right away that this verse exhibits two techniques found in hokku:

1.  Expression of season through the interplay of Yin and Yang;

2.  Internal reflection.

We find Yin and Yang in the melting of the snow, which shows us that the Yang energies (light, warmth, activity) are in the ascendant and the Yin energies (darkness, cold, inactivity) are diminishing.  That is obvious in the melting of the snow.

We see internal reflection in the harmony between the melting of the snow (increasing Yang, water freed from its ice state) and the freeing of the horses (from an inactive to an active state) — in fact they are the same thing, expressed on the one hand in snow melting to running water, on the other in horses, kept largely inactive in winter, freed to run and leap about in the fields and newly appearing grass.  The verse shows us the growing Yang of spring.

Onitsura’s hokku is more simple and subtle, particularly in a literal translation of the original:

Spring’s water — here and there is seen….

What Onitsura really means to convey would, in English, be more like this:

The waters of spring,
Seen here, there,
And everywhere. 

Early spring is a very wet time, with the snow melting and running all over in little rivulets, and spring showers just increasing the flow.  But the water is not the same, psychologically, as that of autumn or winter — it is the water of spring, and in it we feel growing Yang and increasing activity.



I often talk about Yin and Yang in hokku.  In fact I talk about them so much that another name for the kind of hokku I teach might be “Yin-Yang” hokku.  That is how important it is — so important that one cannot fully understand hokku without it.

In old Asia and in hokku, it was something people grew up with.  It was even the principle upon which old traditional Asian medicine and philosophy were based.  But it has to be actually taught to Western students, because they generally are not familiar with it.

I will try to make it brief, so this posting will condense a lot of information that the student should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of hokku.

You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol.  It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:


Yin and Yang are the two opposite, yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe.  They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in hokku.  Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony.  So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang.  In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together.  When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.

What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms?  This is very ancient knowledge.

Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;

That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes.  Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang.  You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page:  the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang.  When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin;  when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.

As already mentioned, everything in the universe is — at any moment — in some stage of the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.

In hokku this is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the principle of internal reflection.  In hokku the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another.  In addition, in hokku there are two kinds of harmony:  there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast.  Both of these important aspects of hokku relate to Yin and Yang.

We already know that time and the seasons are essential to hokku.  Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:

Let’s start with deepest winter.  Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin.  And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang.  That is exactly what happens.  In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow.  We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.”  It grows and spring begins.  So spring is increasing Yang.  Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang.  Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases.  That is what is happening in spring.  Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season.  The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin.  A seed of Yin starts to grow within it.  Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining.  Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root.  We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang.  But in autumn it falls — Yin.

Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season.  Then the whole cycle begins anew.

This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the hokku principle of internal reflection:

Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring.  Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins.  One grows gradually older — the autumn of life.  And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate, and we die — deep winter.

The same thing applies to each day:

The middle of night is deep Yin.  Dawn nears and Yang increases.  We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus of the birds.  Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases.  Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it.  The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows.  Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.

So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:

Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;

We see Yin and Yang in a landscape painting.  Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin.  And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place.  And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.

In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how hokku work without it.  In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.

We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:

On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:
Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.
To this we add our poetic hokku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin.  So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period in the season, which of course is very “hokku.”

You can see from all of that what a very excellent spring poem this hokku of Onitsura is.  And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all.  That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to hokku as I teach it — because not only was it essential to old hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.

If you have “been around the block,” as the saying goes — if you are familiar with books written on all kinds of short verse that are descended in one way or another from the hokku,  and familiar with journals and internet sites, you will realize suddenly that I am the only person teaching this relationship of Yin and Yang in old and modern hokku.  You will not find this teaching of how it relates to hokku in practice anywhere else.  Why?  Because other kinds of brief modern verse — modern haiku in particular — have largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku.  Most never knew them to begin with.  I am sure that one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the actual practice of hokku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.

I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to the hokku than superficially meets the eye, how one must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how hokku works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.

Once one knows about and begins to understand the Yin-Yang principle, one sees it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time.   That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of hokku.

I should add that for the old writers of hokku, Yin and Yang were not a recipe for writing. They did not consciously think, “Now I must write a poem incorporating Yin and Yang in order to get a certain effect.”  Yin and Yang were just a part of their cultural and aesthetic background, so they did not have to consciously consider their interactions in writing, for the most part.  For us in the West, however, the interactions of Yin and Yang are not a part of our cultural background — at least not since a very long time — so the best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in old hokku.  That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your hokku practice — your personal background — but not in any forced and rigid way.



In a previous posting, you will recall, I said that one may have a verse in the outward form of a hokku, with everything in it correct, and still not have a hokku.  That is because to be a real hokku, a verse must have the content — the aesthetics — of hokku.

Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey Cypress) in Peb...

By aesthetics I mean the overall atmosphere of hokku.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that every aspect of hokku aesthetics must be seen or included in every hokku.  It is more subtle than that.

We can think of hokku aesthetics as the “taste” or the “fragrance” of a hokku.  It is the overall feeling one gets on reading a single hokku or a collection of hokku.  In some it may be fainter, in others stronger, but however faint or strong, it should always be there.

The most obvious characteristics of the overall hokku aesthetic are these:

1.  Poverty
2.  Simplicity
3.  Transience

Poverty applies both to the outward form and to the aesthetics of hokku content.  It means  a sense of spareness and ordinariness rather than a sense of luxury and the exotic.  Think of it like the simple — yet “plain” — beauty of Shaker furniture, or of the Walden of Thoreau, or of a Quaker meeting.  It means a sense of appreciation of the few things one has instead of a sense of unappreciated abundance.

We see poverty, for example, in Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming. 

The water plantain is a very ordinary and “plain”  plant, not showy at all, or expensive.   Here we see it not in a costly or elaborate pot, but in an ordinary clay pot or crock, and that crock is even broken.  So the poverty of this hokku is easy to see.

Poverty overlaps and relates to the next aesthetic characteristic of hokku — simplicity.  We also see simplicity in Onitsura’s verse.  The hokku form itself exhibits simplicity.  By simplicity we mean that a hokku does not have a flavor of complexity or elaborateness.  It is not hard to “get,” and it is very ordinary in its words, which are not fancy or unusual or requiring a special education to understand.  Hokku should not seem sophisticated.  We should not think of a city dweller going to plays and art galleries and parties; instead we should think of a farmer or of a hermit in the woods, or of a dweller in a simple house with a garden in a small town.

Added and related to that, hokku should have a sense of naturalness rather than artificiality or contrivance.  A hokku should seem natural and unforced in its writing.  It should not give the appearance of being the result of much thought and manipulation.

We see simplicity in this verse by Buson:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Do you notice that there is an underlying sense in that verse of “something happening”?  We see the rough cloth bags bulging with seeds getting soaked by the rain, but there is also a sense of latency; by that we mean a sense of something that is not said, but is still there nonetheless.  In this verse it is the underlying knowing that the soaked seeds are going to start swelling and sprouting in and through the holes in the weave of the cloth bag.  That gives this hokku the feeling of a kind of potential power that is not actually mentioned in the verse.  What is that power?  It is the sense of the growing Yang energy of spring.  I have talked about Yin and Yang in relation to hokku in other postings, and I will talk about them again in future postings, because they are something I often mention in my teaching of hokku. Keep in mind that we usually have that feeling of something left unsaid in hokku.

I mentioned naturalness in relation to simplicity.  Part of that is a sense of selflessness.  That means the writer should not “stand out” in a hokku.  Hokku is not about ego or self. That is why we minimalize the use of “I,” “me,” and “my.”  We usually avoid them unless they are necessary for clarity.

A third and very important characteristic of hokku aesthetics is a sense of transience.  Behind all of our practice of hokku there should be — sometimes fainter, sometimes stronger — the sense of evanescence, the sense that everything in this world is temporary, whether it be a blooming flower or a leaf on a tree or our lives.  There is nothing which we can hold on to always, because everything in life, everything in the universe, comes only to go.  It arises and then passes away.

That gives hokku another characteristic, which is something that is almost loneliness, but not quite, something with a feeling of solitude mixed into it.  It is almost sadness but again, not quite.  It is that feeling that arises in us when we realize that everything around us — our possessions, our friends, our surroundings — are transient and temporary.  That  too is very important in the aesthetics of hokku, the background feeling or flavor or subtle fragrance that is always behind our practice.  Imagine that you have been away for 30 years from the little town where you grew up; when you go back, you see that the small shops you remember are not there, certain buildings and houses are entirely gone, and you do not recognize the people in your old neighborhood.  Things are just different; it is no longer the place you remember.  That is the kind of feeling transience gives rise to.

Transience is obvious in Hyakuchi’s verse,

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
The haze. 

Associated with transience, please remember, is a sense of time passing.  That is why in hokku, things that are old or worn or weathered or broken are valued; they show the passage of time.  The transience of hokku is also why every hokku is set within a particular season, whether it is mentioned in the verse or used as its classification.  The seasons come and the seasons go, and what happens within the seasons is constantly changing.

There is of course much more to the aesthetics of hokku, but these characteristics are the basics, and every writer of hokku should know them.  Remember that they are not blatantly obvious in every hokku, but again are like the overall background taste or fragrance that permeates and pervades our practice of hokku.  If your verses have that subtle feeling, then that is what fills the correct form with what is really hokku and not some other kind of short verse.

Hokku leave us with the feeling that, even though they are very simple and ordinary, there is something significant in them that we cannot quite put our finger on, something deeper that is never said or explained in words.

Of course, of primary importance in hokku aesthetics is the overall subject matter of hokku, which we summarize as “Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.”

Many people read through these aesthetics, but they do not sink in; they do not really absorb them, and consequently fail in writing hokku.  So even though they seem and are very simple and ordinary, do not think they are unimportant.  To write hokku, you must realize what they mean in your life, and whether and to what extent your life reflects them.



Because the practice of hokku is so intimately connected with the seasons, I like to regularly remind readers where we are in the “old” hokku calendar in its traditional Western version, the Wheel of the Year, which very closely approximates the old hokku calendar of Japan in its times.  We are in the spring phase:


Begins with Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st. 1st week of February.
Midpoint: Spring Equinox — Even-night — March 20/21.
Ends the evening before May Day (Bealtaine pr. BYAL-tuh-nuh), 1st week of May.


Begins with May Day (Bealtaine), 1st week of May.
Midpoint: Midsummer’s Day — Sunstede/Sunstead, the Summer Solstice, June 20/21.
End: The evening before Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa pr. LOO-nuh-suh), August 1. 1st week of August.

As you see, we are coming up on the midpoint of spring, the Spring Equinox. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors (and they may be our ancestors either biologically or linguistically or both) called the Spring Solstice Emniht, pronounced “EM-nicht,” with the “ch” like the “ch” in German ich.  It is a short form of Efn-niht, “Even-night”; that time of the year when the hours of day and night are equal.

Emniht in spring — Even-night — is one of the four “Quarter Days.” Think of the year as a great wheel with four spokes dividing it into four quarters. The two vertical spokes are: Midsummer’s Day- Sunstead (the Summer Solstice) attached at the top of the wheel, and opposite it, on the bottom of the wheel, is the Winter Solstice, Yule.  Then there are two crosswise spokes: that at mid-right is the Spring Solstice, the spring Even-night, that on the mid-left is the Autumn Solstice.

A sun cross-like symbol with six or eight arms...

So we are coming up on the spring Even-night — the Spring Solstice. The next great quarter day after that will be the Summer Solstice, which the Anglo-Saxons called Sunstede — Sunstead — that time when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, stands there in its place (stede/stead), and then begins to decline again in its arc across the sky.

Halfway between the “Quarter Day” spokes on the great wheel of the year are the “Cross-Quarter Day” spokes. the next one we will encounter will be May Day, Bealtaine as our Celtic ancestors called it ( pr. BYAL-tuh-nuh), sometimes written as “Beltane.”

In simple hokku usage, we can think of these spring quarter and cross-quarter points loosely in these terms:


Begins with Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st: 1st week of February = “Spring begins.”

Midpoint: Spring Equinox, — Even-night: March 20/21 = “Spring deepens.”

Ends with the evening before May Day (Bealtaine): 1st week of May. – “Spring departs.”

I very much enjoy keeping these old traditions and old names and their variations, but if you prefer a simpler version, then you may stick to the looser hokku periods shown in bold type above, keeping in mind that they refer to general periods of days rather than to the more precise names and dates of the old “Wheel of the Year” calendar. It is good, however, to be at least familiar with the old calendar, even if you prefer the simpler approach in practice.



A Chinese landscape painting by Wang Shen

It used to be common — and still is, to some extent — for people in the modern haiku movement to see Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) as a “rebel” of the end of the 19th century.  But actually, Shiki was in general far more conservative than one might think.

A good part of his “haiku,” for example, are really hokku in form and content.  And he retained not only the hokku form, but also the customary link with the seasons that characterizes the hokku.

We may consider Shiki then, in either of two roles:  on the one hand as the last major “hokku” writer,  and on the other as the man who set the “haiku” off on its erratic course.

Today I want to discuss a verse — still essentially a hokku — by Shiki, one that shows just how very conservative he often was.  It is a “parting” or “farewell” hokku, which is a poetic genre that one can trace all the way back to the Tang Dynasty of China and beyond — a thousand years and more.  It is a verse written to commemorate saying farewell to a dear friend who is leaving and will be gone for a very long time, perhaps forever.

The hokku poets — Shiki included — were heavily influenced by the poetry of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, in this particular genre by such poets as Li Bai (Li Po, 701-762), who is the author of this example:

Seeing  Meng Hao-ran off from Yellow Crane Tower

My friend is leaving the West from Yellow Crane tower,
Through the haze and blossoms of March down to Yangchou; 
A distant, single sail –the endless blue hills —
Then only the long river flowing to the edge of the sky. 

Li Bai watches as his friend goes downriver in a boat with a sail.  He watches it drift off though spring blossoms and haze into the distance of limitless blue hills, then it disappears, and he sees only the long river flowing to meet the sky.

Here is Shiki’s verse in this same genre but in hokku form, rather literally translated:

Boat and shore willow separates  parting kana

Kana is an ending word with no definite meaning.  It was often used simply to fill out the required number of phonetic units in a Japanese hokku.  We may think of it as a kind of pause or ellipsis here, indicating continuation, ongoing movement and the passage of time.

In ELH (English-language Hokku) form, we can present it as:

Boat and shore
Are separated by a willow;
Parting ….

You may recall that many hokku — particularly Japanese hokku — often require the participation of the reader’s poetic mind to fill in what is not said in words.  This one requires a bit of that, but it is rather easy.

By boat and shore, the writer means both the shore and the person on it, and the boat and the person in it.  As the boat is oared out into the river and begins to move downstream,  it rounds a headland on which a willow tree grows, which blocks the view of the departing boat from the shore.  That separation of boat and shore, friend from friend, is an internal reflection of the third line of the verse, which of course is the key to understanding the verse as a whole — “parting.”

Two verses in different forms, yet in the same genre and poetic tradition, though separated in time by more than a thousand years.  And that from a supposed “rebel.”  We see through such examples that in general, Shiki was often simply a hokku writer who used a revisionist name for his verse.

We can also see, from comparison of these two examples, how very long the poetic tradition that nourished and gave rise to the hokku was — a thousand years and more.




An English-language hokku is a verse of three lines, the middle line often — but not always — visually longer than the others.

English: Tide pools at Pillar Point at low tid...
Tide Pool

Chiy0-ni wrote a very effective spring hokku:

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

Notice that:

The first letter of each line is capitalized.

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

There are two parts, one long and one short:

Long:  Everything picked up is moving.
Short:  Ebb tide; 

The two parts of hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation (note the semicolon here):

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

The hokku ends with appropriate punctuation (note the period here).

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving

Follow these standards and you will have the accurate form of hokku — the container which holds the content, just as a shell holds a nut.

In hokku everyone follows the same form. That is because the form works excellently, is very appropriate, and has proved its worth. But equally important, it gives no occasion to bickering over form. It thus contributes importantly to a sense of community in hokku. We speak the same “language” of form, the form works superbly, and that enables us to concentrate on content.

Notice that the example verse has three elements in it:

1.  A setting:  Ebb tide

2.  A subject:  Everything picked up

3.  An action:  Is moving

Now let’s look at punctuation:

The great virtue and value of punctuation is that it guides the reader through the hokku smoothly and effortlessly, and without confusion. It enables very fine shades of pause and emphasis, very important in how we experience a hokku.

As a general guide, here is how to punctuate hokku:

A semicolon indicates a strong, definite pause. It is generally used to enable the reader to absorb the setting of a hokku, for example in presenting the setting before moving on to the rest:

The spring wind;

A dash is used to indicate a longer, more meditative and connective pause:

The spring wind —

It is typed as two hyphens.

One may also use ellipses for that purpose:

The spring wind …

A question mark is usually used to ask a question that in hokku is never answered:

The spring wind?

The exclamation mark is occasionally used; it indicates something surprising or unexpected:

A spring wind!

The comma indicates a very brief, connective pause. It is often found at the end of a line that begins with a preposition:

In the spring wind,

A hokku always ends with punctuation, whether a period (.) — which is the most common — or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!) very sparingly used, and also the seldom-used final ellipses (….).

That is hokku form in a nutshell.

As for length, we should not exceed the standard by much.  In English the standard is a pattern of 2/3/2 essential words. Essential words are those words essential for meaning, but not for grammatical correctness. For example, we have already seen the verse

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

Its essential words are:

Ebb (1) tide (2)

Everything (1) picked (2) up (3)

Is (1) moving (2)

So there are no non-essential words in this example.  Non-essential words (for length counting) are often words like “the,” “a,” “an,” etc.

Though 2/3/2 is the standard, it should not be seen as an inflexible pattern.  Flexibility is very important to English language hokku, because a thing in English may be as visually brief as the word “fly” or as long as the word “dragonfly,” so we must be sparing while not becoming too rigid. The standard of poverty, if followed, ensures that in hokku we use only a few simple, ordinary words, including only what is necessary for clarity and good grammar.  If you find that notion easier to work with than essential words, that is fine.

You can see that there is nothing peculiar about the appearance of hokku in English. It uses ordinary language, ordinary words, ordinary punctuation. And again that frees us to concentrate on content, because though form may make something appear to be a hokku visually, it is only the content that will make a real hokku.



Yesterday I discussed a kind of “fundamentalism” one finds among those who talk about hokku and haiku, and I wrote, essentially, that it does not matter to me (except historically) what any of the old hokku writers had to say about the hokku and its nature; what matters is the validity of the verse itself, on its own merits.

English: Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924), &q...

Now that can easily be misunderstood. Some people may think it means, “I don’t care what the original writers considered to be hokku, I am going to write it however I please.”

That, in fact, is the attitude and practice of a great many people in the modern haiku community, but it is not mine.

On the other hand, there are those who examine every detail of old hokku and say that the way we write it today cannot vary in any particular from how the hokku writers of the 17th or 18th century — or a certain one among them — wrote it. Some even say it is impossible to write “genuine” hokku in English — that it can be written only in Japanese. That, again, is not my position either.

My position is simply this. In my teaching of hokku, I have taken its essence — what I consider to be the best and most practical aspects of both form and content — and I have adapted those to the English language. The English-language hokku form reflects the essence of the old Japanese form, though of course it is now “reborn” in an English-language format. And the aesthetics I teach are very much the aesthetics of the old hokku.

Because of that, I continue to call what I teach hokku. And I can look at what is written by other people, and I can tell them whether it is hokku, or close to hokku, or only superficially hokku, or not hokku at all in anything but brevity.

So what I teach is hokku, a continuation of the old tradition, but in the English language.
However, as I have said, the kind of hokku I teach stands on its own merits now. Consequently there is no need to refer to Japan at all. If hokku is “good” verse — if it does what it is supposed to do as hokku according to the principles and aesthetics I teach, then if for some reason we had to call it something else and never mention Japan again, it would still be a verse practice with its own value and virtue. It does not have to rely on any 17th or 18th or 19th century historical validation of it merits.

That too, is why I like my students to think of hokku as I teach it as something without a history, so that they may see it as something new, and may learn it on its own terms. Of course it does have a history, and we can trace it back centuries — but for writing it today, all of that is really unimportant except for academic reasons. In the actual practice of writing hokku, it does not matter at all.

The result is that I do not encourage students to take up the study of old literary Japanese, or the sociology of Japan in the Edô period, or any of those things. None are necessary for learning and writing hokku. One may study them if one likes, but to do so is not in the least necessary for the successful learning and writing of hokku. In fact for many people, such things simply become just another distraction and obsession.

Those who learn hokku from me are learning modern English-language hokku. They are not learning Japanese hokku, they are not learning a hokku that requires validation by  Bashô or Buson or Shiki.  They are just learning hokku as I teach it. That is the best way to approach it.



Every now and then, I like to clarify my approach to the hokku — that is, to teaching the writing of new hokku — for readers who may be novices here.

English: Portrait drawing of Henry David Thoreau

As many of you know, I have been teaching hokku on the Internet for many long years; in fact to the best of my knowledge, I was the very first person to ever actually teach either hokku or haiku on the Internet. Of course now the number of such people is legion, but I am still — again to the best of my knowledge — the only person actively teaching the hokku as distinct from modern haiku.

Except as a matter of historical interest, it does not matter in the least to me what Bashō or Taigi or Gyōdai or Buson or Issa or any of the other writers of old hokku had to say about the nature or composition of the hokku. Further, it similarly does not matter to me (again except for historical reasons) what is said by any modern scholar, Japanese or Western, about the history or practice or aesthetics of the old hokku or of its numerous offshoots, ancient or modern.

Why? Because what I teach as hokku does not depend for its validity or value on any of that. Instead, the hokku I teach stands on its own merits. And though one can say that hokku as I teach it reflects and continues this or that aspect of the old hokku, it would not matter to me in the slightest if it did not.

Do not misunderstand. There is an obvious and very clear continuity between old hokku and what I teach, because I teach largely from old examples written from the 1600s to near the beginning of the 20th century. In that, one could say that what I teach is as close to old hokku as one is likely to get. The only difference is that I translate the models I use for teaching into English form and punctuation. So hokku as I teach it is a continuation of the old hokku, but in a different language, and with emphasis on some aspects of the originals that fit what I consider to be hokku at its best, and a de-emphasis on aspects of old hokku that I regard as superficial or unnecessary.

There are endless quibbles in print and on the Internet over what is “real” in the history of the hokku, which many people today anachronistically and inaccurately term “haiku,” confusingly mixing it with modern haiku: What was the role in old Japan of “season words”? What is the historic use of “cutting words?” Did Bashō use metaphor or not? Did Shiki “free” the hokku when he re-named it “haiku”? How can we write “real” hokku or “real” haiku (for those who use that word) today, if we do not know precisely how it was written in old Japan? To me one need not worry about such questions.  It all just leads to pointless bickering.  Such discussions  are merely of academic — not practical — interest.

Some may wonder why, then, I teach hokku by frequently using translated or modified old Japanese examples.  It is not because such examples validate what I teach as a quotation from “scripture” presumably validifies this or that religious doctrine.  It is, instead, because the examples I choose exemplify quite well aspects of the hokku aesthetics I teach, and it is easy for the student to use them as models for the structure and aesthetics of writing hokku today. A good model makes for good learning. So the old hokku I use in teaching validate what I teach not because they are old, but because they are good.

I like to teach the hokku as though it had no history at all, because then people do not get caught up in those kinds of fundamentalistic arguments over whether this particular brand of hokku or haiku is what Bashō “really” taught, or whether this or that word in a Japanese original actually meant something other than it appears to mean.

I consider all such questions to be literary archeology, or idle speculation irrelevant to the actual writing of hokku today. It is an unnecessary distraction, and worse than that, it is the cause of seemingly endless bitter quarrels and animosity among different factions over whose form of verse is the most genuine, the most in keeping with the spirit of the original — the most “scriptural,” one is tempted to say, because again, it all seems to me like arguing over points of religious doctrine — and equally as profitless.

So I repeat, for emphasis, that hokku as I teach it has nothing to do with all that. People may think of it, if they wish, as something completely separate from the history of hokku or that of haiku — something entirely new. That way they will not approach it with all the baggage of this or that faction of the modern haiku community, or this or that faction of Japanese or Western scholarship on the history of hokku. My students should never feel that they have to justify the form or aesthetics of what they write from any old Japanese writings or any statement by past or modern scholars.

That approach to hokku automatically removes the cause of a great deal of bother and dissension. It frees students from caring whether R. H. Blyth accurately represented the Japanese hokku or did not, whether Shiki was justified in his revisionism of hokku into “haiku,” whether the “right” path is set forth today by this or that pundit or advocate or critic of hokku or of modern haiku. It saves a tremendous amount of needless historical research and semi-religious, fundamentalistic “proof-texting.”

Above all, that approach gives one a sense of extraordinary freedom in one’s practice of hokku, because then one can just concentrate on learning its principles and in writing it and developing one’s understanding of it. All the rest matters not one whit.

Of course, to repeat, doing so is dependent upon one’s desire to do so, and whether to write hokku as I teach or not is entirely up to the individual and his or her inclinations. Those who prefer some other verse form or no form at all will not find themselves cast into outer darkness or anathematized. To each his or her own. But of course I will continue to teach “my” approach to hokku on this site, for those who may be interested.

And I will continue to hope, as I always have, that there are some out there who will find that hokku as I teach it — which I sometimes call Contemplative Hokku — “speaks to their condition,” as the Quakers say — that they will see the virtues and value that I find in it.

So, to conclude , if you want to learn hokku from my postings here, please do so without any sense of dogmatism in comparing it to the past or present of either hokku or of haiku. It is helpful to completely separate from any such history or dogma. Learn it for itself, because it is only by doing so that you will discover what it has to offer.

Keep in mind, as you do so, Henry David Thoreau’s principle that what is required is not “new clothes” (in change of form or subject matter in this case) but rather “a new wearer of clothes.” I teach that we should not drastically change hokku to fit us and our whims, but rather that we should change to accord with the profundity underlying hokku. That is, seen deeply, just what it was for Thoreau — a spiritual teaching.

You will find it, I think, a liberating experience.



Consider the words of cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss in his fascinating book A Universe from Nothing (Free Press, 2012):

Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded.  Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right.  We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust.

We are not separate from the universe; the universe is us.  We look at the stars, and all we see is ourselves in different form.  There we are, shining in the night sky.   The same when we look at a bird, or a rock, or a tree.  A human is the universe “human-ing.”  A cow is the universe “cow-ing.”  A star is the universe “star-ing.”

Bashō wrote:

From among
The peach trees blooming wildly,
The first cherry blossoms. 

The universe as peach blossoms, the universe as cherry blossoms, the universe as Bashō, the universe as me writing this, the universe as you reading it.

That is the way to hokku — oneness of subject (the writer) and object (that which is written about).



183_1822  fallen Camellia
Fallen Camellia (Kate's Photo Diary)

I wrote yesterday of R. H. Blyth and his method of translating hokku.  He wrote six volumes of such translations, nearly all of which had to do with hokku, though he used the terminology of the Japan of his day (mid-1900s) and anachronistically and confusingly called them “haiku.”

Blyth’s purpose in translating was to explain a quite different kind of poetry to the West, a verse form with aesthetics and a philosophical basis quite unlike that of conventional Western poetry.  He was not presenting a guide to writing new hokku in the English language, because he had no idea, in the beginning, that Westerners would be interested in such a thing. Those interested in learning how to write hokku today — in English and other languages — will find what Blyth omitted described in postings on this site.

Blyth explained the hokku gradually through his commentaries on each verse, but these were largely overlooked as readers concentrated on the verses themselves.  Without the commentarial background, and without a thorough study of what Blyth offered, rather unsystematically, as the aesthetics of the verse form, readers simply saw the hokku he presented through the dark glass of their own preconceptions — derived from a background in Western ideas about poetry.  They did not comprehend, for the most part, how very different the hokku was from the kind of poetry to which they were accustomed.

What Blyth attempted to transmit to the West then, was for the most part (in spite of his terminology) an overall understanding of the hokku — not an explanation of how to write it.  History has shown us that he was, unfortunately, writing far over the heads of his readers, who apparently failed en masse to grasp the point of his unsystematic presentations.

Further, Western readers did not realize that in his translations of hokku, Blyth was often not at all literal.  His intent was to give the “meaning” of a verse, filling out his translations with what would have been added to a spare original by the mind of a Japanese reader experienced in the reading of hokku.  That means he added elements that are not actually written on the page in the original — elements that must be supplied by the intuitive mind of the (Japanese) reader.

Blyth often changed the arrangement of elements in a hokku as he translated, and the form — the inherent structure of the hokku — sometimes got lost as  a consequence.  So again, what readers found in Blyth’s translations were not by any means clear examples of how to write the hokku form in English.  They were, instead, often glosses, expanded versions of the originals, that made them accessible to the Western-educated mind and cultural background.  In fact I was tempted to write “explanded” versions, meaning translations that were simultaneously explanations and expansions.

As such, Blyth’s translations are excellent, because they do convey the real sense of the originals, though often they do not faithfully reflect the “bare-bones” nature of Japanese hokku.  But as I have said, they do not provide the Western reader with a clear and obvious explanation of how hokku should be written in English; that was not Blyth’s original intent.

I gave one example of Blyth’s method yesterday, along with the Japanese original for comparison.  here is another, a spring verse by Dansui (died 1711):

Camellias fall
One after another, plop, plop,
Under the hazy moon.

But here is a literal translation of the original:

Plop Plop camellias drop; hazy moon. 

As you see, there is no “one after another,” there is no “under the.”

Further, Blyth has given no clear idea of the structure of the original, which has, as hokku do, two parts, one longer and one shorter, separated by a cutting word.  Knowing of that original form is really essential if one wishes to write hokku in English.

In English, one possibility for translating the hokku with correct form would be:

Plop!  Plop! 
Camellias dropping;
The hazy moon.

That is much more faithful to the original in both form and content, and it is how we would write a hokku in English.  Even though there are exclamation points in the first line, the cut actually comes with the semicolon after “Camellias dropping”.  It separates the longer first part of this hokku from the shorter second part.

An added advantage of this translation is that one gets the imitative alliteration so common in Japanese hokku in the repetition of  the “p” sounds in “PloP! PloP!” and “droPPing.”  In that repetition we actually hear the sound of the camellias dropping from the bush.  The technical term for the connection between the original sound and the word we use to imitate that sound is onomatopoeia.

If only Blyth had made all of this clear and obvious in his writings, which otherwise are so full of valuable insights into the aesthetics and principles of the hokku!

In the original of the verse discussed here, the term “hazy moon” tells us it is a spring hokku.  That is because of the old Japanese system of “season words” used to automatically identify the season in which a verse was written and in which it should be read.

In English we indicate season merely with classification of each verse by its season — we write it on the slip of paper on which we compose the hokku, and pass it along when the hokku is read or published.  But of course in Dansui’s verse, along with the season indicator “hazy moon,” the mere presence of the falling camellia tells us that it is a spring hokku, because that is the season for the blooming and falling of camellias, one of the first spring blossoms.

Note how very sense-based this hokku is.  We have only the heavy sound of the dropping camellias and the sight of the hazy moon.  There is no interpretation, no explanation, no commentary, no symbolism, no metaphor, no simile, not even any sign of a poet present.

Hokku is, in essence, a sensory experience — an experience of one or more of the five senses — sight, hearing, sound, taste, touch — transmitted from writer to reader, with nothing intervening.  That is very unlike most Western poetry, which almost always feels it has to add some sort of commentary or elaboration to the original sensory experience.

But in hokku, by contrast, particularly in the kind of hokku I teach, the writer is just a clear mirror reflecting what is happening — Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.



I have written before about the telegraphic brevity of old hokku, which often comes as a surprise to those who are accustomed to seeing it in English translations or to seeing modern English-language hokku.

Here, for example, is R. H. Blyth’s excellent rendition of a spring hokku by Hyakuchi, (1748-1836), whose name always amuses me; it always makes me hear someone sneezing.  But the Chinese characters composing it mean literally “Hundred Ponds”:

The cow I sold,
Leaving the village
Through the haze. 

If we look at the original, however, it is literally:

Sold cow’s village leaving; haze —

As you see, there is no “I” who sold the cow, there is no “through” the haze.  But Blyth, in his usual superb manner, has supplied what the Japanese reader would have intuitively added to that scanty framework.

Of course that did not always work.  Some old hokku are so vague that people still argue over what a writer may have intended.  To me those are simply bad hokku, and we need not bother with them.

In English we have no such problems of interpretation, because the English-language hokku — like the English language itself — is more precise than “hokku” Japanese, and the telegraphic method of old hokku is simply not adequate either for our language or our culture.  So Blyth did precisely the right thing in expanding the verse to clarify it for Western readers.  If there is arguing over what an English-language hokku signifies, then it means the hokku is poorly written.

If I were to translate the same verse, I would be slightly more literal than Blyth, with only one clarifying expansion:

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
Spring haze.

That is a bit more like the Japanese — more faithful to the original — and also it reflects a common characteristic of hokku writing — that we often are not told whether it is the writer himself who is involved in what is happening, or whether he is observing someone else.  So in this verse the cow might be one another person has sold, or it might be one the writer has sold.  It is up to the reader to supply which understanding gives the right effect for that particular person.

Nonetheless, Blyth’s reading of it is quite effective, because when the seller is made explicit — “The cow I sold” — one identifies and feels the sad sense of having lost something, a sense that is only magnified as the cow slowly vanishes into the spring haze.

In my translation, the one expansion I made is the addition of the word “spring.”  To a Japanese reader, the presence of the word “haze” automatically means a hokku is a spring hokku.  Of course in modern English-language hokku, every verse is marked by the writer with the season in which it is written.  But actually putting the word “spring” — missing in the Japanese original — into the verse is effective in this particular case.

Who knew that the after-effect of selling a cow could be so poetic?  Obviously, Hyakuchi — Gesundheit!



It is unfortunate that when Reginald H. Blyth wrote his series of volumes extolling and

English: Yamazakura,_Cerasus_jamasakura
Yamazakura -- Mountain Cherry

explaining what were, for the most part, verses of hokku, he made the mistake of using the revisionist term then popular in the Japan of his day — “haiku.”  But of course for most people in those times, there was no obvious difference; the majority still followed the conservative “Shiki” kind of “haiku” that simply adopted the aesthetics of the old hokku, if somewhat diluted. There were already some radicals who had made drastic changes, but those radicalisms were not favored by most ordinary people.

Today, however, the situation is very different.  In the West modern haiku has largely abandoned the aesthetics of the old hokku, so that today haiku is justifiably called by a different name.  But the mistake is often made of thinking that the modern haiku is simply a continuation and a replacement of the old hokku, and that is completely wrong.

Modern haiku is in fact largely the creation of those Westerners in the 20th century — particularly in the latter half of the 20th century — who separated the haiku from the traditional hokku aesthetics practiced by Bashō and all the other writers in the centuries prior to the revisionist changes of Shiki, which began near the end of the 1800s.   Modern haiku is, then, largely the result of Westerners misperceiving and misunderstanding the hokku in terms of what they already knew — the aesthetics of Western poetry.

The aesthetics of the hokku are quite different. The advocates of modern haiku were, in many cases, quite unaware of those aesthetics, and the few who did have some inkling of them either ignored or willfully abandoned them.  Consequently, today the hokku and the haiku are for the most part two very different kinds of verse, even though superficially they appear similar; both are brief, both are generally written in three lines.  That is often the only thing they have in common.

That is why it is so outrageous when a widely-used Internet source such as Wikipedia defines hokku thus:
…the latter term [haiku] is now generally applied retrospectively to all hokku appearing independently of renku or renga, irrespective of when they were written. The term hokku continues to be used in its original sense, as the opening verse of a linked poem.

In other words, they want the unwary reader to believe that the hokku has simply been re-named “haiku” in all cases where it is not used specifically to mean the first of a series of linked verses.  According to that notion, all hokku not linked to other verses somehow automatically become “haiku.”  But that is quite mistaken and inaccurate. How did such gross misunderstandings arise?

They began with the accumulation and piling of error on error.   Sadly, some of these misunderstandings can be traced to Western readers who came upon the volumes of R. H. Blyth.

Blyth’s original purpose in writing was to explain the aesthetics of the hokku to Westerners completely ignorant of it, and he illustrated those aesthetics by translations that were sometimes glosses that went beyond or modified what was actually written in the originals.  His intent was good; he wished to convey aspects of hokku that a Japanese reader would automatically understand, but which a Westerner would simply not “get” if the verse were translated literally and left at that.

Here is a typical example.  A female student of Bashō (Chigetsu) wrote the following hokku, which I will give in both transliteration and my literal translation:

Yamazakura chiru ya ogawa no mizuguruma

Mountain-cherry falls; stream’s waterwheel.

That’s it.  No wonder Blyth felt more was needed for a Westerner to even begin to understand this verse.  So Blyth glossed it as:

Mountain cherry petals
Fall and scatter
Over the water-wheel of the brook.

That certainly conveys what a Japanese reader would get from the original, because Japanese hokku has a long history of requiring something more of the reader — the ability to make an intuitive poetic leap.  Blyth has simply supplied all the words in his English version that a Japanese would intuit.  Blyth is thus fulfilling his intent in writing — he is conveying the overall meaning of the hokku — not just what was written on the page, but also what was to be understood — intuited.

Unfortunately, readers of Blyth often assumed that because he presented the verse in a run-on sentence divided into three lines, it was perfectly all right to compose new verses using that form.  But of course that was not the form of the original hokku.

That original hokku consists, as do modern hokku, of two parts, one longer, one shorter. We will better understand the form if we look at each Japanese word comprising the verse:

Yamazakura = yama (mountain) sakura (cherry) chiru (falls) ya (a cutting particle indicating a meditative pause, generally represented in English-language hokku by a semicolon or dash) Ogawa (o = small, kawa = river) no (a genitive particle equivalent here to ‘s in English, which could also function as a cutting word) mizuguruma (mizu = water, kuruma = wheel).

Blyth, again, did not indicate a separation of the two parts in his gloss because he simply wanted to convey the overall impression of the hokku, and he did so quite well.  But this was all too often understood by Westerners to mean that there were not two parts to the hokku, that there was no separation.  They saw Blyth’s gloss, even though divided into three lines, as one sentence:

Mountain cherry petals fall and scatter over the water-wheel of the brook.

And so came about a basic misunderstanding of the form of the hokku, which of course, following Blyth’s use of the anachronistic term, they called “haiku.” Multiply this misperception many times, and you have the beginnings of the creation of modern haiku in the West.  That is why today modern haiku is in such a fragmented and disparate condition. The best verses one finds in modern haiku are often those few that are most like the hokku.  But such verses are few and far between.

That is why, for the most part, modern haiku is a new Western verse form quite separate both from the old hokku and from Shiki’s original conservative haiku, which was hokku in all but name.

Getting back to our sample verse,  if we were to re-write it in modern hokku form, it would look something like this:

Wild cherry blossoms –

They scatter over the water-wheel

Of the brook.

As you can see, that maintains a two-part division of the old hokku.  It also has a pause, indicated in this case by the dash, separating those two parts.  Modern English-language hokku is simply a continuation of the essentials of the old hokku, though with minor adaptations for a different language.  That is why we can legitimately still consider modern hokku a part of the old hokku tradition; it keeps the essentials of form and the essence of the traditional aesthetic.

That cannot be said of modern haiku, which again is, for the most part, a new and separate kind of verse, though loosely based on the brevity of the old hokku. Modern haiku generally lacks the principles and aesthetics of the genuine hokku.

Incidentally, if any of you are wondering why, in the Japanese transliteration, some words appear in two forms — zakura/sakura, gawa/kawa, guruma/kuruma, then you will want to know that it is just a phonetic change that occurs when certain initial consonants are used in combinations with certain other words, and it does not indicate a change in how the word is actually written in Japanese nor any change in its meaning.   I promise not to always be so detailed when discussing individual hokku, because no knowledge whatsoever of Japanese is necessary if one learns to write hokku correctly in English and other languages other than Japanese.  But one must know the correct English-language form and the underlying principles and aesthetics.  Otherwise what one writes is likely to turn out as “haiku” and not hokku.



Plum blossoms;
They scatter on an empty sack
Of charcoal.                  

Blossoming plum, by Chinese artist Wang Mian. ...

That is a rewriting of a hokku by Yayū. It is of course a spring hokku.

There are, as I have mentioned many times, two kinds of harmony in hokku: harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast. This verse has the latter. It shows us the pinkish-white blossoms of the plum drifting down through air and falling on an empty charcoal sack, which is black with dust from the charcoal and filthy-looking. The whole point of the verse is in the visual contrast and the feeling of “high” beauty in the plum blossoms contrasting with “low” in the empty charcoal sack.

This mixture of conventionally poetic subjects with “earthy” subjects is characteristic of hokku, quite different than the earlier and longer waka (essentially a hokku plus two extra lines in form), which used only poetic and “elegant” subjects.

This reminds us of three main aesthetic characteristics of the hokku — poverty, simplicity, and transience. All are seen in this verse.



Buson wrote:

In nooks and corners
The cold lingers;
Plum blossoms

This hokku shows us the change from the extreme yin of winter to the growing yang of spring.  Even though the plum trees are blooming, in the shadows and hollows and nooks where the sun does not shine, the cold remains.  But we know from the blooming of the plum that even in those shaded places, the lingering cold will soon give way to the warmth of spring.