Seibi has an interesting hokku that reminds one of Thoreau’s close observation of Nature:

The morning sun;
Already it penetrates
The autumn willows.

This is another of those verses in which meaning requires knowing the principles of hokku.  We might think it is just about the morning sun seeming to be up early (“already”), or the writer’s having risen from bed a bit late, but that is not the case.  The important factor here is the stated season, autumn.  That tells someone educated in hokku that there is a significant relationship between the sunlight and the willow trees.

(Photo credit: markhig)

Put simply, the writer sees how quickly autumn is progressing.  The leaves of the willows have been falling for days, opening gaps between the branches through which — he suddenly notices — the morning sun shines.

That is the point of the verse — transience, impermanence, how everything in Nature (including us) is constantly changing.  Just a short time ago the willows were a mass of yellow leaves, but already so many have fallen that the morning sunlight penetrates the trees.

Here in the United States, we are more likely to think of other kinds of leafy trees in such a circumstance, but the verse would be effective even if we generalized it to

The morning sun;
Already it penetrates
The autumn trees.

In that case, we would again use our “hokku sense” to recognize that these are hardwood trees losing their leaves, not evergreens — and again the tipoff would lie in the word “autumn.”



I often say here that Japanese hokku sometimes tends to a vagueness not found in English-language hokku.  Some verses can be so unclear as to leave their meaning perpetually in doubt.  Those are just bad hokku, in spite of the excuses made for them.

There are, however, hokku in which vagueness is present but not harmful.  Such a verse was written by Sōkyū:

The smoke I raise —
Other people’s 
Autumn evening.

Sōkyū does not tell us why he is doing something that raises smoke into the air.  As Blyth suggests, “The smoke may be that of burning fallen leaves, or the fire he makes for his own evening meal…”

The point is that everything is interrelated.  The smoke rising from the chimney of your neighbor’s cabin on the opposite hill becomes an integral part of your autumn evening when you see it or smell it.  The same with the smoke from your own stove or fireplace or pile of smouldering leaves — it becomes other people’s autumn.

Thoreau once finished an overwrought poem [his real poetry was his life, not his verse] with these words:

Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.

Sōkyū was more straightforward, seeing no pardon as necessary for the smoke that was his neighbor’s autumn evening as well as his own.

There is a harmony in autumn between the season and smoke, because autumn is the season of gradual destruction — the falling of the leaves, the withering of the grasses.

We could also translate the first line of this verse as Blyth does:

“The smoke I make….”



When we read or write hokku in English, we should be careful to avoid romanticism and exoticism, both of which lead us into illusions and fancy and away from the aesthetics appropriate to hokku.

Old Broken Window
(Photo credit: Big Grey Mare)

That is why, when I translate old hokku, I often like to translate not just from language to language but from culture to culture.

Teiga wrote:

Kusa no to ya   tatami no ue no aki no kaze

If we translate rather literally, we get:

A grass hut;
Over the floor —
The autumn wind.

Kusa no to literally means a grass hut, and of course tatami are the woven grass mats that cover the floor of a traditional Japanese home.  But Blyth translates well the overall rather than the literal meaning:

A poor hut;
The wind of autumn
Blows over the tatami.

A grass hut is a poor hut, made of the cheapest of materials.

If we translate this hokku culturally, we might say:

An old shack;
The wind of autumn 
Blows over the floor.

That way we see a dilapidated old house with broken places in the windows and gaps in the walls.  Such a house cannot be said to keep out the wind, and that is the point.

But we might want to emphasize the poverty, as does Blyth.  We could then translate:

A poor house;
The wind of autumn 
Blows over the floor.

That way we know it is not simply an old abandoned shack, but a house of poverty; it is lived in, and that has significance.

Its poorness is in keeping with the poverty that is part of the “feeling” of autumn as it deepens.

The original, as you can see from the literal version, does not have the word “blows,” but it is helpful to add it in English to convey the effect intended.

The point of this little posting is not only the effects achieved by variations in translation,  but also the the differences of effect we get when we write original hokku in English.  The principle is the same.




Last time, I talked a bit about Walt Whitman’s way of overcoming the repeated disappointments of life. But for some people, the only answer is humor.

That was Dorothy Parker’s approach. Dorothy Parker, you will recall, was a wit popular in the first half of the 20th century, one of the noted members of the Algonquin Round Table literary circle.

Parker offers no solution to life’s disappointments, but she makes it very clear in this clever poem that disappointments are to be expected.

To understand this verse, you need know only three things:

1. A medley is a mix of things, for example, a selected collection of different songs played one after another.

2. Extemporanea is a word you are likely to find nowhere but in this poem. It means things that one comes up with on the spur of the moment, spontaneously, without preparation. It is formed from the more common term extemporaneous.

3. Most important of all, you need to know that in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in the first forty years, there was likely no royal figure in all the world who had the celebrity status of Queen Marie of Roumania (now spelled “Romania”). Unlike the royalty of more wealthy countries, Marie knew how to present an image of a Queen to the public that rivaled that of fairy tales (in fact Marie herself wrote fairy tales). She was not only a writer but also an artist and craftsperson who made sure that her surroundings were as photogenic and “romantic” as possible. You get a good idea of her style from the photo on this page. But aside from all that, she was a remarkable person who insisted on personally and frequently visiting wounded Romanian soldiers in hospitals at the time of the First World War, in spite of the dangers of typhoid fever. If you have never read the account of her life, you should. The Romanian people loved her very much.

Marie also, to great acclaim and notoriety, visited the United States in 1926, and even wrote an unconventional column for American newspapers, giving advice on life — “Queen’s Counsel.”

So to understand this poem, just remember that Queen Marie of Roumania was a very well-known and celebrated  international figure at the time it was written:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.

(Not So Deep as a Well, 1937)

The point of the poem, of course, is that life, in reality, is neither a glorious cycle of song nor a medley of extemporanea; that love frequently goes wrong; that the statements in the first three lines are just as true as the statement in the last that the writer of the poem is Queen Marie of Roumania; in short, not true at all.

The thing that always strikes me about this witty and light little verse is that I would be extremely unlikely to have come up with a rhyme such as “extemporanea” for “Roumania.” Of course Parker had to virtually coin the word to do it, but it makes sense and it is effective as used.

If you have a few moments for a glimpse into the aesthetic world of Queen Marie, watch this revealing video:



Life, as we all know, has its ups and downs.  Normally the ups are slight, the downs are slight, but we all go through phases, whether days, months, or even years, when things just do not seem to go right at all.  That can be very wearing on the human spirit.

Bread line - Dayton (LOC)
(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

In such circumstances we begin to notice all that is bad or amiss, not only in the people around us but in ourselves.  It all begins to seem a bit overwhelming.  Our faith in humanity is shaken, as is our faith in ourselves.  Walt Whitman went through such times, and wrote this poem expressing concerns with self (O me!) and with existence in general (O life!) — thus its title, O Me!  O Life!

I will discuss it in parts:

O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Whitman not only ponders but deeply feels the questions associated with one’s being and with the life of which one is a part, the great questions that keep recurring.  He thinks of the masses of people around him, the “endless trains of the faithless,” meaning the long lines of people who betray our hopes and expectations of them.  He thinks of the cities full of foolish people (they existed then, they exist now), and he considers how he is constantly reproaching himself for not living up to his own notions of what he should be and how he should act in the world.  He sees all the other foolish, faithless, fallible human beings, and he considers himself no better, no less foolish and faithless than they.

Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; 
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;

He thinks of how our eyes — both physical and spiritual — crave “vainly” (in vain) for light that will brighten our darkened lives and enable us to somehow see some meaning in it all, some redeeming significance.  He thinks of the “objects mean,” which we may take not only as the craving of humans for things that do not last and do not satisfy, but also as the unworthy objects (objectives) of our striving, goals that do not seem ultimately worth our toil to achieve them.

He considers the “struggle ever renewed,”  of our constant efforts and labors to gain this or that thing, this or that position in the world, or merely to survive, to have food on the table and a roof over our heads.  And he ponders the “poor results of all,” how things just do not seem to turn out the way we would like, how even the most valued of prizes seem to lose their glitter once they are achieved.  And he thinks of the “plodding and sordid” crowds he sees all around him — the people caught in the rat-race of life, the people who have made it by standing on the backs of others, the many more who have failed in one way or another or feel they have failed, those who have not made it and have given in to numbness of spirit or dismal despair.

He thinks of the “empty and useless years” people spend in their often vain pursuit of this or that goal, of their frustration in not achieving it; of the wasted years of lives seemingly without achievement or purpose or point.  And he counts himself among them, feels a part of them,  “with the rest me intertwined.”

All of this brings up the great recurring questions.  What is it all about?  What is my place?  Do I have one?

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

The question comes to us over and over again:  in the midst of all the striving and disappointments and sordidness and meanness of life, what good is there in it all, of what use is it for the poet himself to exist, what point is there?


Whitman gives us and himself a simple answer:


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

He tells us that existence itself is the reason for being — that life exists is in itself enough, and that in this life we have identity — we are who we are.  Among all these masses there is one named Walt Whitman, and he is an actor in the great play that is life, that vast, ongoing poem that is life; and each human, like Whitman, will contribute a verse to it.  Every individual life, in whatever direction it goes, whether viewed as success or failure by others or by one’s self, is a verse in that poem of multitudes.  That we all play our parts and contribute our lines, Whitman tells us, is enough.

I always remember a ’60s cartoon in which a supposed sage is asked, “What is the answer to the secret of the universe?”  And the reply is, “The answer to the secret of the universe is not to ask stupid questions.”



For a free society, free intellectual advancement, and a creative and open marketplace of thought and ideas, freedom of speech and expression are essential.  They are the foundation of a free society.

Freedom of speech is the right not only to express one’s views on a subject, to discuss that subject, to disagree with the opinions of others on that subject, but also to satirize it. This applies no matter what the subject might be, including religion. Consequently, in a society that honors freedom of speech in practice and not merely in theory, no one has the right not to be offended by others speaking or writing or painting or filming their views.  Any individual may say what he or she likes about another individual’s religious beliefs or views or activities or venerated figures.

Any effort to limit such freedom of speech or free expression is fundamentally dangerous to the principle of free speech itself. That is why in a free society, there is no freedom from offense with freedom of thought and speech, and no real freedom of thought and speech where there is legalized freedom from offense.

There are those who think that this basic principle should not apply to one or another aspect of religion — to this or that religious figure, or to a particular religious text or “scripture,” or to a particular religious activity. But they are very wrong.  All people should have not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion if they choose.

Whenever any religious decree is taken as the final word, that means a door has slammed on the human mind, chaining it into a fixed position on that matter, a position in which no further progress is possible and no further investigation is allowed. That, of course, puts a stop not only to advancement in science, but also to advancement in countless other fields.

Any assumed fact must thus always be open to potential investigation, criticism, discussion and disproval.

There was a time in the West when such investigation was not only forbidden but actually dangerous to one’s life.  From this, Western civilization learned a very important lesson — that with freedom of speech and expression one is free to investigate any matter, whether it be of science or of religion, history or folklore.   And that is as it should be.

It is critical to the survival of a democratic society that this freedom of speech and expression be vigilantly watched over and protected.  We are very fortunate in the West.  Such freedom of speech does not exist in all parts of the world and in all segments of society in various countries, which still have outmoded and backward “blasphemy” laws,  but freedom of speech in its various manifestations is one of the greatest gifts of Western Civilization to the world, and it is one which must be cherished and protected.

Consequently, a sensible person will regard any statement offered as fact as only fact in a provisional sense. It may be tentatively accepted as accurate given what is presently known of the evidence, but nonetheless such a “fact,” whether in science or religion or any other field, is never immune to the possibility of being disproved by further investigation and evidence.

That means it is the height of nonsense to persecute or prosecute or harrass someone simply because they disagree with one’s views on a given matter, or express their disagreement in some written or visual or audio form.  And of course that means everyone should be free to choose a religion, or to leave a religion, or to have no religion.

Suppose, for example, one thinks the world was created only a few thousand years ago by an all-powerful deity. Unfortunately there are large numbers of people who accept that as fact, then close their minds to any possibility of another option. Why they do so is immaterial, because they have stopped all thinking on the issue, as do all those who adhere to such a dogma. They consider the matter closed. Imagine the results if this had been adopted as the attitude of science!

Suppose now, that there is in society a law that keeps one from offending such closed-minded people; a law that prevents suggesting that their view may are wrong — a law that forbids one from putting disagreement with such “creationists” into speech or into writing or visual format — a law that forces one to keep one’s opinions to one’s self, secret. Then that is a society in which the principle of free speech has been seriously damaged and limited — a society that is no longer truly free, a society that actively hinders the advancement of knowledge.

There are two great dangers to freedom of speech, and they are two sides of the same coin: the first is the forbidding of speech that offends the views of another. That alone is serious and damaging enough. But the second is even worse: it is limiting the free speech of others through intimidation — through threats of violence. Both result in a society that is unable to think and speak freely and openly, a society that is regressive and ultimately unhealthy.

Free speech in the United States is the result of an immigrant society that had experienced, in the past, religious intolerance and violence in the mother countries. That does not mean, of course, that simply coming to America made them automatically supporters of free speech. There was a great deal of intolerance in certain segments of early immigrant America, for example among the New England Puritans, who came here for freedom of religion, but who did not wish to grant the same right to anyone else. Fortunately, however, freedom of speech and freedom of religion were a part of the founding of the United States out of the original thirteen colonies.

In the years since then, freedom of speech and of religion have not been uniformly protected in practice, but historically one can say that certainly great progress has been made. It is all the more important, then, that we should be aware of the inestimable value of these freedoms, and should be ever vigilant that we do not lose them through ill-considered new laws that may damage them or through fear of intimidating violence that hinders or prevents their free practice.



Leaves of the Copper Beechen (Fagus sylvatica)...

A pleasant hokku for the early part of autumn is this by Suiō, in spite of its unconventional arrangement.

The autumn night;
Dreams and snores
And grasshoppers chirring.

It is evocative of the warm, drowsy, earlier part of autumn, when the warmth of summer is not entirely gone, and the world has begun to turn russet and gold and brown and the leaves have slowly begun to fall.

The dreams reflect the transience of life, which is felt more strongly as autumn begins, and the sleep in which they come reflects the beginning of a period of hibernation and return to the root.  And the regularity of the snores of the sleeper (-s) is reflected in the chirring of the grasshoppers.  I have talked more about the importance of the principle of reflection in hokku in earlier postings.

This verse is very good for showing how the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature — as part of the annual cycle along with everything else.

Just a note on translation.  I actually prefer the hokku in English, which is a bit more clear than the original Japanese, which says simply:

The autumn night;
Dreams and snores
And grasshoppers.

The Japanese writers of hokku often made things just a bit too vague for English-language taste, because there was such a tradition of making strong intuitive leaps from minimal information to the wider, unstated implications.  But in English we do not have that strong tradition.  And though we are quite capable of making intuitive leaps, we like things spelled out a bit more clearly — which in the case of this hokku is a distinct advantage.

It is true in general that English is a far more precise language than the rather archaic, clipped literary language used in old hokku.  As I have said before, some old hokku were so vague in the paucity of information given that to this day no one is entirely sure what the writer intended.  In our contemporary hokku tradition, that is considered merely bad writing, because for a hokku to be most effective, one should be able to grasp it immediately and without confusion.






In previous postings I have discussed the relationship between Zen and hokku (yes, there is one).  Today I would like to talk briefly about where Zen and hokku differ.

Kodaiji Teahouse Dimage 0159

First, Zen is more inclusive than hokku.  Hokku deliberately restricts its subject matter, avoiding topics that trouble or obsess the mind.  That is why hokku generally avoids (R. H. Blyth says “abhors”) “the sentimentality and romance and vulgarity which Zen will view with equanimity

Zen views such things with equanimity, but ordinary people who have not reached that high level — meaning the people who write hokku — do not, are not yet able.   That is why hokku avoids wars and pestilence and plagues and riots and disasters.  It is done, again as Blyth says, because “we wish to forget them, and must do so if we are to live our short life in any sort of mental ease.”  That is even more true of our modern and very stressful society.  Hokku is a quiet refuge in the midst of the turmoils of life, and all the more valuable for being such.

Hokku, being a contemplative verse form (particularly as I teach it), consequently follows the old tradition of  avoiding violence and sex and romance and all things that unduly disturb the mind.  Instead, it turns our attention to the changing seasons and to Nature, treating humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the subject matter of hokku.

That is in great contrast to modern haiku, which generally has virtually unrestricted subject matter.  In haiku one may write about iphones and digital TVs, about wars and rumors of wars, about social injustice issues and one’s new girlfriend or boyfriend and all the intimate details.  Not so hokku.

That means there is a refreshing peace and purity to hokku.

Bashō expressed this peace and purity somewhat indirectly in an autumn hokku that is very culturally Japanese, but the principle behind it is universal:

Autumn nears;
The mind inclines toward
The four-and-a-half mat room.

That makes a rather awkward and obscure hokku in English until it is explained; what Bashō was saying is that as one feels autumn beginning, the mind feels the need for a withdrawal from “the world” into the peace of the small, spare, aesthetically tranquil little room of the hut in which the tea ceremony is performed, that peaceful, quiet, studied practice that was so important in traditional Japanese culture.

We could translate it in English as

Autumn nears;
The mind is drawn
To the teahouse.

That, however, does not achieve the feeling of the original, because a tea house in English does not convey the earthy, simple aesthetics of the small, grass-matted room in which the Japanese tea ceremony was performed.

So though we cannot use this hokku as a good model for writing in English because of its cultural difference and the need to explain it, we can nonetheless appreciate the desire expressed in it to be in keeping with the nature of autumn, which is a retiring from the busy world into silence and simplicity and a kind of inward contemplation.

That tells us a lot about hokku as compared to haiku.  Modern haiku, in general, has lost this intimate connection with Nature, this simplicity and tendency toward contemplative spirituality, as it has evolved to encompass all kinds of subjects and emotions.  But hokku still is what it was — a peaceful refuge in a troubled and stressful world.

That is why we all may feel, as autumn now begins, that our minds — our hearts (the word is the same for both in Japanese) — incline toward this peaceful refuge of hokku, while around us, all of Nature begins to fade and wither and decline and return to the root.




As I have written before, in hokku we make use of two calendars:

First, there is the “natural” calendar, which varies depending on where one lives.  For example, in my state,  autumn comes earlier in the mountains than in the lowlands.

Second, there is the old, traditional calendar, which is very much the same in the West as it was in the Japan where hokku was first created.  In this calendar we use traditional terms such as Samhain (pron. SAW-win) and Yule.

Now that we are moving into autumn by the “printed” calendar, here is a look at autumn/fall and winter according to the old traditional calendar, with its “quarter days” and “cross-quarter” days:

The End of our summer in the traditional calendar happens on the evening before Lammas; then comes Lammas — Harvest Home — Lughnasa (pron. LOO-nuh-suh), August 1st, 1st week in August.  On Lammas our autumn begins.

For us it begins with Lammas — Harvest Home (Lughnasa), August 1st.  1st week in August.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers it took place thus:

Risshū (立秋): August 7—Autumn begins;
Shosho (処暑): August 23—Heat finishes;
Hakuro (白露): September 7—White dew;

Our Midpoint is the Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint was:

Shūbun (秋分): September 23— the Autumn Equinox, the middle of autumn.
Kanro (寒露): October 8—Cold dew;
Sōkō (霜降): October 23—Frost descends;

Our autumn has its End at the Evening before Samhain, November 1st.  1st week in November.  Then on Samhain our winter begins.

Our winter begins with Samhain, November 1st, the 1st week in November.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, winter began thus:

Rittō (立冬): November 7—Winter begins.
Shōsetsu (小雪): November 22—Small snow;
Taisetsu (大雪): December 7—Great snow;

Our winter Midpoint is Midwinter’s Day — the Winter Solstice — Great Yule, December 21 / 22.
Similarly, the old Japanese Midpoint was:

Tōji (冬至): December, the Winter Solstice — the middle of winter.
Shōkan (小寒): January 5 — Small Cold—also called 寒の入り (Kan no iri) The Entrance of the Cold’
Daikan (大寒): January 20—Great Cold;

Our winter had its End on the evening before Candlemas, February 1st, 1st week in February.
Similarly, as we have seen, for the old Japanese hokku writers, winter ended on February 3rd.

And here for us the yearly cycle begins again with Candlemas (Imbolc) at sunset on February 1st.
For the old writers of Japanese hokku, it began again similarly with Risshun (Beginning of Spring) on February 4th.

Now, what does all this mean to us today?  It means simply that if we follow the old and traditional Western calendar as our hokku calendar, we shall essentially and with only insignificant variation be following the same old calendar by which hokku was written in Japan.  And incidentally, that old Japanese calendar was actually borrowed from the Chinese, so the Japanese hokku calendar was the same as the Calendar used by the old Chinese poets.

So when we use the old and traditional Western calendar, we are, with little variation, following the same general calendar as the ancient poets of China and Japan.  The names vary from place to place, but the times are essentially nearly the same.

Of course there is much more to say about the place of autumn/fall in the writing of hokku, so through this season I will be discussing more old autumn hokku and what they mean for the writing of hokku today.

Keep in mind that hokku originated in a temperate Northern Hemisphere region, and so this calendar reflects that.  In the Southern Hemisphere, and in non-temperate climates, the hokku year must be adjusted accordingly.  For example, some countries do not have four distinct seasons.  Instead, they might have a rainy season and a dry season.  Hokku should fit the climate and place and environment in which it is written.




There is a place for fun in poetry, for verses we enjoy not because of intricate verbal craftsmanship or intellectual or spiritual profundity, but just because they bring a smile.  One of the surest of these poems that bring a smile was written a long time ago by a nine-year-old

Helen Island, Helen Reef, Palau. Original desc...

Brooklyn, New York girl named Nathalia Crane.  Her poem is a delightful mixture of childish naïveté and precocious cleverness.  It is called The Janitor’s Boy:

Oh, I’m in love with the janitor’s boy,
   And the janitor’s boy loves me;
He’s going to hunt for a desert isle
   In our geography.

A desert isle with spicy trees
   Somewhere near Sheepshead Bay;
A right nice place, just fit for two
   Where we can live alway.

Oh, I’m in love with the janitor’s boy,
   He’s busy as he can be;
and down in the cellar he’s making a raft
   Out of an old settee.

He’ll carry me off, I know that he will,
   For his hair is exceedingly red;
And the only thing that occurs to me
   Is to dutifully shiver in bed.

The day that we sail, I shall leave this brief note,
   For my parents I hate to annoy:
“I have flown away to an isle in the bay
   With the janitor’s red-haired boy.”

Yes, we notice the little things that are just a bit off, like the rhyming of “Bay” and “alway,” but the poem as a whole is so enthusiastically pleasing that they become just a part of its charm.

After all, who can resist the curious logic of lines like:

He’ll carry me off, I know that he will,
For his hair is exceedingly red;

And the peculiarly innocent psychology of

And the only thing that occurs to me
   Is to dutifully shiver in bed.

We are left with the youthful certainty of knowing that whatever obstacles life may put in one’s way, the faithfully, insistently red hair of the janitor’s boy shall overcome them.

It is also a cheerfully whimsical touch that the boy plans to search the geography [book] for a comfortably-habitable, spicy-treed desert isle that the couple are certain will be found somewhere near Sheepshead Bay, which lies between Brooklyn and Coney Island.

Perhaps one of the things that makes the poem so appealing is that it reminds us of a childhood world in which such things are firmly felt to be possible, before the realities of life intervene.



From time to time I like to remind readers that the careless use of the term “haiku” to describe what historically is really hokku is not only anachronistic but also inaccurate and confusing.  Here is a slightly modified earlier article I posted on the topic:

ja: 鈴木其一(寛政八〜安政五年)画『朝顔図屏風』 en: Asagao-zu Byōbu...

It is both interesting and useful to note that the term “haiku” did not begin to catch on in the West until the middle of the 1900s. Prior to that time, when Americans or Europeans spoke of the brief Japanese verse form, they correctly called it either “hokku” — the specific term for an individual verse — or “haikai” — the collective term for the wider practice of which the hokku was the most important part.

In 1905 the Frenchman Paul Louis Couchod, writing some verses in imitation of the Japanese, published a book titled Au Fil de l’eau, filled with verses he called haikaï.

Another Frenchman, Fernand Gregh, came up with more imitative verses titled Quatrains in the Form of the Japanese Haikaï. And yet another, Albert de Neville, wrote a collection of verses titled 163 Haikaï and Tanka, Epigrams in the Japanese Manner (I have translated these last two titles).

It is not difficult to see that the term favored in France for the Japanese hokku was the term describing the wider practice, haikai, which was also the term favored by Bashō and the other writers up to the time of Shiki, though of course the opening verse, whether it appeared alone or as the beginning of a verse sequence, was the hokku. So really either is correct. That is why today we write hokku, but it still falls within what Bashō termed haikai. Because we tend to concentrate on the individual verses, we more frequently say “hokku” than “haikai.”

These early writers and others in France give us not only what is apparently the first attempt to write the verse form in the West, but also the first examples of how Westerners completely misunderstood the hokku, interpreting it not as it was but as they thought it was. That resulted in such peculiar French pseudo-“haikai” as this 1920 attempt by Gilbert de Voisins:

Trois vers et très peu de mots
Pour vous décrire cent choses…
La Nature en bibelots.

Three verses and very few words
To describe to you one hundred things …
Nature in trinkets.

That is quite far from authentic hokku.

And Paul Eluard, writing in 1920, presents us with another verse as unlike hokku as anything one is likely to find on today’s modern haiku blogs:

Le vent
Roule une cigarette d’air.

The wind
Rolls a cigarette of air.

When we come to writers in English, we find that in spite of Basil Hall Chamberlain’s title Basho and the Japanese Poetical Epigram (1902), the favored English term for the verse form was hokku, which was precisely the correct term for such an individual verse of Bashō and the other writers in Japan.

Ezra Pound, for example, called a hokku a hokku:

The Japanese have evolved the still shorter form of the hokku.

‘The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly.’

This is the substance of a very well-known hokku.” (from Vorticism, 1914)

Pound could not tell good from bad hokku, nor did he really grasp what a hokku was as distinct from Western notions about it.

Amy Lowell wrote Twenty-four Hokku on a Modern Theme (1921). She did not understand the true nature of the hokku any better than the French or Ezra Pound, as one can see from such mutations as:

Night lies beside me
Chaste and cold as a sharp sword.
It and I alone.

Even Yone Noguchi (1875-1947), though calling what he wrote in English hokku, came up with verses as romanticized and unlike the genuine hokku as anything conceived by Americans or Europeans in the early 1900s, such as this 1920 example:

Suppose the stars
Fall and break?—Do they ever sound
Like my own love song?

Noguchi was born in Japan but spent considerable time living in the West and absorbing the “Western” concept of poetry, which was also influencing Japan at that time, and the result, as one sees from his verse, was like trying to genetically cross a dog and a cow. Noguchi evinces as little understanding of the hokku as any confused Westerner.

It is unfortunate but obvious, then, that though the writers of Europe and America were using the correct terminology for a hokku, they had no genuine understanding of what it was, as their attempts at writing show. We learn from this that simply calling a verse hokku does not make it hokku. None of these early enthusiasts writing in Western languages really had the foggiest idea how to write a genuine hokku in the tradition of Onitsura and Bashō and the other great writers of Japan prior to Shiki. But at least they got the terminology right.

So in the first part of the 1900s, Westerners knew the Japanese verse form was hokku as part of haikai, but they failed to understand what a hokku really was.

Imagine, then, how confusing it became when, in the mid 1900s, the terminology suddenly changed, when what had previously been called the “hokku,” though greatly misinterpreted, suddenly began being called the “haiku” in the English language. All the confusions and misperceptions and misunderstandings that had been placed on the hokku by American and European writers were simply transferred to a “new” anachronistic and historically incorrect term.

But how did the change in terminology come about?

It is due partly to the Japanese themselves, who in the first half of the 20th century, being overwhelmed by Western culture and technology, gradually displaced the old term “hokku” with the term used by Masaoka Shiki to describe his revised re-interpretation of the hokku form — “haiku.”

As we have seen, early writers in the West used the original and genuine term, hokku, though they had no idea what they were writing about. The public at large scarcely took notice in any case. Then in 1932 a Japanese named Asataro Miyamori came out with a large volume in English titled An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern (1932). Few in the West read it, but those who did were introduced to hokku under Shiki’s revisionist term haiku, which had by then become popularized in Japan.

Then the confusion multiplied in the West. Harold Henderson came out with his little volume of translated hokku The Bamboo Broom (1934), but also following popular Japanese usage of the time, he too called the verses “haiku,” not, as they should have been correctly termed, “hokku.” And make no mistake. Almost all the verses Henderson included were really hokku, not haiku.

But what really changed the scene was the work of Reginald Horace (“R. H.”) Blyth, who in works published between 1942 and 1963 consistently used the then-popular term in Japan — “haiku” — to describe the traditional hokku. That is not surprising, because Blyth took up residence in Japan and used the terminology popular in the Japan of his day, but it is nonetheless very unfortunate that he unwittingly contributed to misunderstanding when he worked so diligently to explain the aesthetics of what was really hokku to the West.

Because Blyth was the most prolific writer on the subject, and also by far the most widely-read and the best, the older and historically-correct term “hokku” was largely displaced in American and British understanding by the newer, imprecise, anachronistic and revisionist term “haiku.” This very confusing change of terminology in describing what was already a thoroughly misunderstood verse form in the West only created virtual chaos in the public mind.

The use of “haiku” instead of hokku was enthusiastically supported by such budding groups of Western writers as the Haiku Society of America, which often furthered the misperceptions of the verse form that had been common in the West since the days of Couchod, of Pound, and of Lowell.  The teaching of “haiku” in the 20th century tended to perpetuate such misconceptions, and that trend has continued even into the 21st century, which has only exacerbated the misunderstanding and confusion regarding hokku and haiku.

Now what does all this chaotic history mean for us today? It means simply that hokku as the verse form written from Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century up to the end of the 19th century was never really transmitted to the West. The “starter,” to use a baking term used in making sourdough bread, never “took.”

The number of persons who understand and practice the old, genuine hokku in English is today very small in comparison to the huge numbers of writers of the “haiku” in its multitude of variations. The average writer of haiku has never learned the nature and characteristics and aesthetics of the old hokku, and simply cannot recognize one as distinct from haiku. That is how thoroughly misperceptions of the old hokku have pervaded Western understanding in  the 20th and early 21st centuries.

It is true that genuine hokku may be found in the works of Miyamori, of Henderson, and of Blyth, but even these potential models — in spite of Blyth’s superb commentaries — were re-formed in the Euro-American mind to fit inaccurate Western preconceptions and personal whims.

What did appear in the West as hokku in the early 1900s and as haiku from the 1960s onward was simply a new Western verse form that embodied the Western misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku. Like Chinoiserie and Japanoiserie in art, it was a romanticized and completely inaccurate Western misperception of an Asian aesthetic matter.

That means, essentially, that all those haiku groups and literary publications that began appearing in America and Britain in the 1960s generally have no genuine connection with what was written by Bashō and Onitsura and other Japanese writers in the two-plus centuries prior to the revisionism of Shiki.  Nor, with very few exceptions, do of the vast number of “haiku” writers from the mid-20th century up to the present have any relation to genuine pre-Shiki hokku, or even with the conservative “haiku” advocated by Shiki himself, which was often just hokku under a different name.

What has happened, however, is that people have generally misinterpreted the fact that modern haiku was inspired by the old hokku as evidence that modern haiku is a continuation of the old hokku. That is like imagining that humans and chimpanzees are essentially the same today simply because they had a common evolutionary ancestor.

The haiku is not at all the same as the hokku. Instead, it developed out of the old hokku through the revisionism of Masaoka Shiki in Japan, near the end of the 19th century. And it is bizarre, to say the least, that in any modern “history of haiku,” the greater part of text is taken up in describing what is really, historically, hokku — which bears no relationship to modern haiku other than that already described — that the haiku was “loosely inspired,” as one might say, by the outward form of the old hokku. And that is really the only connection. Aside from that tenuous link, modern haiku in English and other European languages is actually a new, Western verse form created initially from misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku.

Hokku is not and never was haiku as the term is understood today, and until one understands that basic fact, one will not be able to understand the hokku or learn how to practice it.




There is a kind of old hokku that I almost never discuss here.  It belongs to the category of verses based on folk belief or myth.  Even these verses have their seasonal connections.

Here is one by Buson:

Withered grasses;
A fox messenger
hurries by.

That makes no sense in a Western context.  To us — at least traditionally — a fox is a rather sly and clever animal.  In traditional Japan, however, a fox (kitsune) is a creature that lives between two worlds — ours and the “spirit” world.  In Japan, foxes were believed to be able to take on human form, and woe to the young man who happened to become infatuated with a fox spirit!  He would just fade and waste away like a shoot of grass withering, and would eventually die.

Buson has reflected this notion in the withered grasses of the autumn fields in his hokku.  He sees the fox hurrying past not as just an ordinary animal, but rather as a courier passing swiftly with a message to deliver, involved in his task and giving no attention to the  human.  Buson regards the foxes as living their own lives in their own eerie society, separate from that of humans, but occasionally coming in contact with them.

The Hiroshige print shown depicts a gathering of fox spirits with “spirit lights.”

This verse has a feeling that we in the West would associate with Halloween.  It is far from the best kind of hokku, but it did exist, and it does have its effect.



Blue morning glory  (asagao) flowers, Gifu, Japan
(Photo credit: Joel Abroad)

Here is a timely repeat of an earlier posting:

Summer is ending, autumn is beginning.

I have already mentioned the transitional verse by Kyoroku that leads us into the season:

First on the ears of millet –
The autumn wind.

There is a related hokku by Chora:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

In Japan, morning glories were considered flowers of the beginning of autumn. So when one sees the morning glories in bloom in late summer, and suddenly the delicate flowers are troubled by a cool wind, one senses the change to autumn.  Morning glories are also associated with impermanence because the flowers bloom and die so quickly.

So here too on this site we begin the change to autumn.

Buson wrote:

The fishing line trembles
In the autumn wind.

This does not mean he is sad, and then sees the line trembling in the wind; it means that seeing the line trembling in the wind of autumn is in itself sadness — the seeing is the feeling. That is because of all the layers of association it evokes — the withering of things, the ending of things, the certainty of mortality, and yet none of these things are mentioned in the verse, and mentioning them goes too far in explaining it. That is the suggestiveness of hokku.

Bashō wrote:

In the cowshed,
The sound of mosquitos
Is weak.

Because this is Bashō, we know that there is some significance to this, not just a random event. The insects that formerly buzzed with such vigor in the height of summer now sound only faint and feeble, their numbers diminishing. That is in keeping with the weakening of vital energies in autumn.

Autumn, again, is the weakening of the Yang energy, the decline of the energy of warmth and life and active movement. It corresponds to the period after middle age in human life, and to the late afternoon and twilight in the day. All these things are automatically associated in hokku; we do not need to even think about them. That is why the faint sound of the mosquitoes is so significant; it expresses the nature of autumn. We hear all of autumn in that weak sound.

It is important to keep in mind that hokku are not metaphorical or symbolic. The faint buzz of the mosquitoes is only the faint buzz of mosquitoes. Everything else is merely suggested by them, below the level of the intellect. All of my explanations are only to teach you with what mind a hokku should be read, with what attitude. To put such things, that are automatically associated, into words, is really going too far, but for beginners it must be done.

We see the effect of these “hidden” layers of association in Issa’s evocative verse:

The autumn wind;
In Issa’s mind
There are thoughts.

What is the nature of those thoughts? We know already, because the autumn wind tells us. They do not have to be spelled out or made clear, and should not be.

Issa’s Autumn verse is an expression in that season of the same thing Bashō expressed in a Spring verse:

Many things
They bring to mind —
Cherry blossoms.

In both we see the sense of transience so common to hokku, and in both we also see the suggestiveness of hokku, which again are to be evocative, not in any way explanatory. For either Issa or Bashō to tell us exactly what these thoughts are, exactly what is brought to mind, would remove every trace of poetry. We do not have to ask.

We know.




Harvest Moon


A very old autumn hokku by Teishitsu (c. 1609-1673):

A solid lump
Of coolness;
The midnight moon.

In English today we would likely say,

A solid ball
Of coolness;
The midnight moon.

You will recall that the sun is very yang, but the moon is the opposite, yin.  And seeing it in the middle of night (a very yin time) amid the darkness (also very yin), the moon seems as though all the yin coolness of the autumn and the night has gathered together and solidified into one round piece of gathered coolness.

This is an example of how hokku often goes with a perception, accepting it at face value without question.







Today I would like to talk briefly (you will soon see the reason for brevity) about what I call “poets of private language,” “PPLs” for short.  A poet of private language is one who writes poetry that is often so obscure that only the poet knows for sure what he or she intended, or whether there is any genuine meaning in it or just an assemblage of words.

Rusty Blackbird, Euphagus carolinus (@ Frozen ...
Rusty Blackbird, Euphagus carolinus (@ Frozen Head) (Photo credit: Michael Hodge)

A prime example of a PPL is Wallace Stevens, whose shoulders bear a considerable part of blame for the degeneration of  American poetry as the 20th century progressed.

Why do I say it degenerated?  Because other poets, following the lead of such writers as Stevens, came to the conclusion that poetry  does not have to be understandable; instead, it could be read as an abstraction, as one views an abstract painting, which does not depict the “real” world, but rather the “abstract” world of the intellectual mind.

Such poems are often assemblages of words with reasonable grammatical connections, but with very little sense that can be made of them by the reader.  The poet may know what stimuli brought forth certain images from his or her mind, but he does not share this with the reader, who is left adrift in a sea of verbiage without compass,  sail, or rudder.

We may take the fact that Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens once got into a row as symbolic of the gap that lies between comprehensible poets (such as Frost) and often incomprehensible poets (such as Stevens).  One may take a Frost poem, and with little difficulty make sense of it.  But a Stevens poem often seems little more than educated gibberish, or as Frost once said of it, “poetry that purports to make me think” (my emphasis).

We can think of PPLs as the literary equivalent of non-representational (what used to be commonly called “abstract”) art.  Abstract because it fits the general definition:

Not relating to concrete objects but expressing something that can only be appreciated intellectually.”


Nonrepresentational: not aiming to depict an object but composed with the focus on internal structure and form.”

Abstraction may work in painting, where one can appreciate color, form, texture, and composition even if there is no representation of anything recognizable or meaningful.  But it does not work well in poems, which is a major reason for the general loss of public interest in poetry in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond.

Given that the poetry of Stevens is often an attempt at abstraction in words, we must take such poems not for meaning, or even for sound, but in many cases as things that just are, like a non-representational painting hanging on a wall; not as something that means (i.e. is understandable), but rather something that just is.

Now if a poem by Stevens is not something that means, but just is, then one might easily mistake it as fitting precisely the definition of ideal poetry given by Archibald MacLeish in his Ars Poetica, (The Art of Poetry):

A poem should not mean,
But be.

The key lies in how one interprets MacLeish.  If one understands him, incorrectly, to mean that a poem should have little or no discernible meaning, but should just be an abstract assemblage of words pulled from the poet’s imagination,  then Stevens would fit.

That is not, however, what MacLeish meant, as we see from the fact that the poem in which the famous “not mean, but be” is found is itself comprehensible; we understand what his poem means (MacLeish later changed to advocating poetry full of meaning and social commentary).

In fact the ideal example of a “poem” that does not mean, but is, may be found in the hokku, for example in this autumn verse of Bashō:

On the withered branch

A crow has perched;

The autumn evening.

That does not “mean” anything beyond itself; it is not a symbol or a metaphor or a simile of anything else.  It is just a sensory experience, and it has no “speakable” meaning beyond that.

Compare that with the beginning of the well-known (at least among English teachers) Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:

Among twenty snowy mountains

The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds, 
Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman 
Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird 

Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Now on the surface this appears to have some meaning; it is recognizable words assembled in a reasonable grammatical fashion.  But when we try to extract genuine, comprehensible, explainable meaning from it, it is not there.  It is like a building facade on a movie lot; when one walks behind it, nothing is there; it is just a deceptive front with no back.

In attempting to explain Stevens poems such as this, the academics find themselves pulling the kind of “snow job” that almost every student who has no understanding of a subject has tried to pull on a teacher; one uses lots of words, but says virtually nothing, as in this example of interpretation of the poem I found online:

In section I, the given, “Among twenty snowy mountains,” is both enticing and imprisoning. The tight chiasmic embrace of “A-mong . . . moun-tains” encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives “tw-en-ty” and “sno-wy.” Movement intervenes through semantic reference, but it is enacted through the play of signifiers when the spell of the phrase is loosened in the second line by the advance, of regular iambs and the “rhyme”-ing, unstressed in “moving” and stressed in “thing.” The final “moving” of the sentence’s subject, the “eye of the blackbird,” moves us from a natural given to an imaginative or imaginary one, still ontological, in the movement that is necessary for the flight of the poem. The paradox of predicating this imaginative and emotional reality–a bird’s eye is anatomically incapable of movement–stresses its metaphorical value.” (

The only thing useful in that is the fact that a blackbird cannot move its eye.

Now you know when someone is reduced to such academic gibberish as

The tight chiasmic embrace of “A-mong . . . moun-tains” encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives “tw-en-ty” and “sno-wy”,

that they really do not know what the @#! is going on in the poem any more than the reader, but they are working hard to fake it.

The best and most honest summary I have found of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, aside from Frost’s remark that it purports to make one think, is a comment by Elva McCormick, who knew and talked with Wallace Stevens.  She had asked him what his poem The Irish Cliffs of Moher meant.  His illuminating response was, “I don’t think you’d understand this unless you wrote it.”  And McCormick’s very perceptive response to that revelation was, “I think that’s true of many of his poems” (see Parts of a World; Wallace Stevens Remembered, pg. 119).

It is significant that Wallace Stevens never actually went to Ireland, never really saw the Cliffs of Moher; he pulled the words out of his head, and that summarizes his poetry in general; he is a poet of the intellect, the world created in the mind, not of the real world around us.

It is an approach that holds no appeal for me, and that is why I spend so little time on Stevens and poets like him, generally using them only as examples of what to avoid.