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!