There is a famous spring hokku by Bashō:

Cherry blossoms (sakura), often simply called ...
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A cloud of blossoms —
Is the bell Ueno?

Through a cloud of blooming cherry trees, the writer hears the sound of a distant, unseen temple bell.  He wonders if it is coming from a temple in Ueno district?  Or perhaps that in Asakusa?
The point of the hokku lies in the “concealing” mass of fresh spring blossoms combined with the unanswered question.

In contrast to that rather “high-class” hokku, there is an anonymous “low-class” senryu.  You will recall that senryu is satirical verse, the “evil twin” of hokku, and no respecter of persons.  So you will not surprised to find that the same expression used elegantly by Bashō — “a cloud of blossoms” (hana no kumo) — is used for a different “concealing”  purpose here:

To hide
The public restroom —
A cloud of blossoms.

There is also another interesting senryu about cherry blossoms, which I translate loosely here:

The clever wife —
She makes him take the child
To view the blossoms.

The point is that the wife does not trust her husband out by himself, so when he casually remarks that he is going to view the cherry blossoms, she uses her wits and makes him take the kid along, to keep the untrustworthy husband out of “not respectable” establishments.

You may recall that in old hokku, the word “blossoms,” when used without a qualifier, was understood to mean cherry blossoms.




Long-time readers here will recall that the hokku I teach is derived only from the best aspects of the old Japanese hokku — those that tend to objectivity, poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.  That is why not everything one may find in old hokku is included in the new.

To better explain that, we might look at some verses from two widely-separated periods of hokku — that of Matsuo Bashō in the 1600s, and that of Masaoka Shiki, who died in 1902.

What I would like to point out today is that each wrote more than one kind verse in hokku form, and not all of them fit what we continue in modern hokku.

First there is Bashō.  He wrote some verses that are overtly “poetic,” while others are more objective.  Let’s look at some examples.

If held in my hand,
My hot tears would melt it;
Autumn frost.

To understand that verse it is essential to know that Bashō is visiting his old home, and is being shown a lock of his dead mother’s white hair.  That hair is what he says would melt if he took it in his hand.

Now we can see immediately that there is an unreality, a fantasy element to the verse.  Bashō is expressing both his personal sorrow over his mother’s passing and the transience of all things, but he is doing it subjectively by altering reality in his imagination.  We know the grey hair would not be melted by his tears; that is just a poetic exaggeration used to show his sorrow, similar to the kind of thing we find in Western poetry.  We can characterize verses such as this as his “poetic” side taking over.

The very last line — “Autumn frost” — would ordinarily be appropriate to more objective hokku, however here Bashō is not using it entirely objectively.  Instead, he parallels the autumn frost with his mother’s white hair — and autumn frost melts in warmth, while hair does not.  And note that we would NEVER write hokku today that require knowledge of the background — knowledge not included in the verse itself — in order to be understood.  In this verse we must know that Bashō is really speaking of his dead mother’s white hair in order to grasp what the verse is about.  In modern hokku such a verse fails, because a hokku should be able to stand on its own.

Bashō also wrote verses about his personal life, verses which, though more objective, are not good hokku.  For example:

One thing —
My life is light.
A gourd.

Again, this requires some explanation.  It would be clearer if we add a little more to the literal translation:

Owning one thing,
My life is light —
A hollow gourd.

This too is a poetic exaggeration.  Bashō not only owned this gourd, but also his clothing and his writing implements and papers, etc.  But he wants to emphasize that his few possessions make his life easier — lighter — than it would be if he owned a lot of things.  The hollow gourd was used as a container for rice used in cooking, though it could also be used to store liquids.

By the way, those who have seen the recent book Bashō: the Complete Haiku rendered by Jane Reichhold will find this “gourd” verse very misleadingly and inaccurately rendered there, a caution one should keep in mind when reading the rest of her renderings of Bashō.  I do not recommend her book for those who want the “real” Bashō.  A far more reliable translation of Bashō’s hokku is that of David Landis Barnhill, even though his book also uses the anachronistic term “haiku” in its title for what were really hokku.

We find more poetic exaggeration in this rather well-known verse by Bashō:

The sea darkens;
The wild duck’s cry
Is a faint white.

That, again, is the “poetic” mind at work.  Bashō wants to make an interesting contrast between the darkness and the “voice,” the cry of the wild duck that comes out of it.  We want to avoid that kind of manipulation in modern hokku.

Contrast the preceding verses with his best-known verse:

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

Note the objectivity.  Bashō has stopped talking about himself, has stopped his poetic exaggerating, and has presented us with a hokku that just reflects an event in Nature, in the context of the season — spring.  Even though this verse, according to tradition, was reworked and not experienced just as it is written, it nonetheless reflects the realities of Nature rather than Nature made unrealistic by the “poetic” imagination.  Such verse is the best of Bashō, and that is why it is in keeping with the principles underlying modern hokku.  So again, modern hokku does not include everything ever written as hokku as exemplary, but rather only the best.

If we turn to Masaoka Shiki, we tend to find elements in some of his verses that we found also in Bashō — for example the presence of the personal:

Getting a shave —
On a day when Ueno’s
Bell is misty.

It is obviously objective even though Shiki is writing about himself; the flaw in it is that it is also awkward and rather pointless; we don’t feel any real connection between Shiki getting a shave and the bell standing in mist.  We learn from this that objectivity without deeper significance can be boring.  Shiki never quite learned that simply recording an event objectively, whether personal or impersonal, does not of itself make good verse.  That is why some of his verses tend to be very flat and two-dimensional, like a picture in a book.

A better verse is one he wrote in 1896:Hasuiml.

The old garden;
Emptying the hot water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That is more connected to Nature because we feel a connection between the transparent water and the moon.  It would be better, however, if it were not a hot water bottle being emptied, but simply a water bottle:

The old garden;
Emptying a water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That way we do not have the word “hot” which is in conflict with the Yin character of the moon; removing it makes a greater harmony between the Yin water sparkling as it is emptied in the moonlight, and the moon itself.

Shiki also wrote:

Spring rain;
Umbrellas all uneven
In the ferry boat.

We see the ferry boat in the spring rain, its passengers all holding opened umbrellas at different heights.  We also feel the connection, though it is very obvious, between the spring rain and the umbrellas.  So there is a unity in this verse not found in his “being shaved” verse.

Put very bluntly, there was never a period when all hokku were equally good.  Only a minority of Bashō’s hokku are still worth reading, and all through the years from Bashō up to Shiki we find hokku that are too “poetic,” too “personal,” and some with the same thing we find in Shiki — verses that are objective but lack any depth or sense of deeper significance.

That is why, again, in modern hokku we use only the best of old hokku as models, and keep only the deeper principles of these as standards for writing new hokku.

When you read the older posts in the archive here, you will see what those deeper principles are — harmony, unity, reflection of the character of a season, and of course a sense of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness combined with the feeling of transience that has always been a part of hokku at its best.



R. H. Blyth once translated a verse by Meisetsu, a late writer (1847-1926) influenced by Shiki, (the fellow who began calling verses that were generally really hokku in form “haiku”):

Ryūboku ya  taburi-taburi to   haru no kawa

Translating it is a bit tricky, partly because the first word, ryūboku, means here “a piece of drifting wood”; then comes a description of the manner of its floating, and finally we have the wider setting, haru no kawa, “spring’s river” — the spring river.  Given all that we need to include, one can hardly do better than Blyth’s rendering:

A piece of wood,
Bobbity, bobbity, floating down
The spring river.

I would alter it slightly, keeping the slight intuitive leap required by the original, and more of its brevity:

A piece of wood
Floating bobbity, bobbity;
The spring river.

I have kept Blyth’s very fitting “bobbity, bobbity.”

What is striking about Blyth and this verse is that he intuitively understood the principle of Yang and Yin in hokku, though he never mentions it.  He says merely that what Meisetsu saw “is the piece of wood in its relation to spring, its restless tranquillity.”  Blyth adds that “In any other season it would have no meaning.”

That is precisely in keeping with hokku as I teach it.  The strength of this verse lies in the bobbing, active motion of the piece of wood on the ripples and dips of the spring river, a motion expressing Yang energy as it manifests in the liveliness of spring, which is the season of growing Yang.  That is precisely why the “restless tranquility” of the bobbing piece of wood would, as Blyth correctly stated, have no meaning in any other season.

By “no meaning” in any other season, Blyth meant that the bobbing energy of the floating peace of wood on the river is in harmony with the active energy of spring.  In summer, when the Yang energy is much steadier and stronger, it would not have the same meaning, in fact it would lose its harmony with the setting, and the same could be said for the declining Yang of autumn and the strong Yin of winter.

This is a very subtle point, and that Blyth grasped it without ever openly discussing the principle behind it shows his remarkably intuitive understanding of the aesthetics of hokku.

Those who are regular readers here will recall past discussions of the principle of harmony in hokku, as well as of the principle of Yin and Yang.  You may also have noted that this verse is a “standard,” hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.

A piece of wood
Floating bobbity, bobbity;
The spring river.

The setting is the wider environment in which something takes place.  Here it is “the spring river.”

The subject within that setting is what the poem is “about.”  Here it is
“a piece of wood.”

The action is movement or change.  Here it is “floating bobbity, bobbity.”




I have recently seen the statement made that hokku is not Nature verse — that instead, it is “time verse,” with its foundation in the four seasons.

The answer to that, of course, is that hokku is all of the above; it is  “Nature” and “season” and “time” verse, but these things are not separate.  The seasons are a part of Nature, Nature is a part of the seasons, and of course everything happens within time, and there is nothing more natural than that.rnhasui.

Perhaps the mistake that led to the odd notion that hokku is not “Nature verse” arose from a misunderstanding of what we mean by Nature —  that by Nature in hokku we mean only the natural world at its wildest and most unspoiled, untouched by human hands.  But Nature is everywhere, though of course more readily obvious in some places than in others.  There is Nature in the back yard, there is Nature in the vacant lot, there is Nature in the countryside fields and forests, and there is Nature in relatively untouched wilderness.

There is even Nature in the fern sprout pushing its way out between the bricks or cracked concrete of a city building or sidewalk, though of course in concrete and asphalt cities we must look actively for Nature, something not necessary in semi-rural and rural settings.

One can write hokku about any degree of the presence of the natural world, from old-growth forests many miles from the nearest human habitation to the hedgerows and fields of farming areas, to what is happening in one’s neighborhood or flower or vegetable garden.  One seldom finds hokku about “wild wilderness” simply because most people do not spend a great deal of time there.  But of course those who do may write hokku about it.

As for hokku being “time verse,” well, it was always that.  Transience is a fundamental aesthetic principle of hokku — the fact that all things are constantly transforming, arising and disappearing, whether it be a mayfly on a spring day or a mountain range in Australia worn down by aeons of weathering.  As the old hymn has it,

Change and decay in all around I see….

That inevitable sense of transience and the passage of time and things in hokku is something it inherited from its spiritual roots, from Buddhism and from Daoism.

The problem then, in this misleading notion that hokku is “time verse” and not “Nature verse,” is that those holding that view are like the blind men examining the elephant; each knows a part, but none sees the whole.  In hokku, Nature and the seasons and time are not separate things, but rather different aspects of the same reality.

The realm of hokku has seldom been untouched wilderness simply because most people do not generally experience Nature as untouched wilderness.  The majority experience it with some human influence.  Even Henry David Thoreau, America’s most famous “Nature” writer, is best known for his book Walden, which is named for Walden Pond, where he lived from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847.  And how does he first describe it?

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts….”

Living on a pond in Concord, a mile from a neighbor, is hardly the unspoiled wilds of Patagonia.  A teacher I once had used to say that Thoreau was never far from the sound of the Emersons’ dinner bell.  That in no way diminishes his great contribution; it just approaches it realistically and without romantic illusions.

The Nature of hokku, historically, is more like Thoreau’s rural Walden than William Cullen Bryant’s

…continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound
Save his own dashings….  [from Thanatopsis]

So hokku, traditionally, has been more the Shire than the Misty Mountains, more Walden Pond than trackless wilderness.  its realm was “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature,” but usually manifesting as something intermediate, something between, on the one hand, the technological modern city that seemingly attempts to wipe out all traces of Nature, and on the other, untrammelled wilderness.

We see that intermediate realm in this spring verse by Shōha:

The wagon nears;
A butterfly flits up 
From the grasses.



You will recall that in addition to hokku, there is another and visually very similar kind of verse called senryu.

How does one tell a senryu from a hokku?  First, senryu does not have a seasonal setting. Second, while hokku deals with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, senryu deals instead with the quirks of human psychology, usually in a satirical way that highlights human foolishness.  I often say that senryu is the “evil twin” of hokku.

Here is an example:

The new bridge opens;
Timidly they dirty it
With their footsteps.

To understand this, one must know that it was written in the pre-automobile era of wooden bridges, not the concrete and asphalt kind we know today.  So the point of the senryu is that it is opening day for a newly-constructed bridge.  The wooden bridge is all fresh and clean and newly-finished wood.  The first people to cross it do so hesitantly, timidly, because they sense there is something not quite right in dirtying the new bridge.  The foolishness of this lies in the fact that bridges are made for walking.

Many of us feel the same odd sense that there is something not quite right in violating what is fresh and new.  For example, I know of someone whose old slippers were completely worn out, but when new ones were delivered, he hesitated to wear them “because they are new.”  It is the story of the wooden bridge all over again.

The point to remember in this is that while hokku deals in subtle states of mind created by experiencing events in Nature, in the context of a particular season, senryu is really only interested in poking fun at the quirks of human psychology.

That is very evident in another old senryu about someone who relies on another for food and shelter:

It is uncomfortable to eat,
And painful not to eat;
The dependent.

There were and are countless family (and some non-family) situations in which this happens.  The brother who has no job and lives in the house of his sister and brother-in-law, for example, feels this when all are sitting around the dinner table.   He is not comfortable in putting all the food he would like to eat on his own plate, and yet when he does not do so, he suffers at the sense of lack.

Writing senryu requires a different kind of mindset than that for writing hokku.  One cannot help feeling that there is always something a little “mean” about the writer of senryu.  Nonetheless, in reading them we frequently recognize the psychological peculiarites of ourselves and our friends, of humans in general.



In the late 1800s and first third of the 1900s, it was common for students in elementary and secondary schools to do “recitations,” a dramatic reading of a poem before a group, with the intent to make it have a strong effect on the listeners.  Often these were recited as “show pieces” for school programs and other events.  Poems chosen for this purpose were generally narrative poems, that is, poems that tell a story.  So there were countless amateur performances of poems then popular among ordinary people, such as “The Wreck of the Hesperus,”  “The Highwayman,” and of course “Casabianca,” with its once well-known beginning:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.

The flames rolled on–he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

Now such poems are generally considered very dated and “old-fashioned” and, to use an expressive American term, rather “corny.”  You may even have heard the satire on the beginning of “Casabianca”:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Eating peanuts by the peck.
The deck grew hotter,
His feet got toasted;
But he kept on eating — 
He liked ’em roasted.

The “roasted” is of course referring to the peanuts the boy is eating.

All of this is just a lead-in to a narrative poem from 1912 that has held its interest over the years.  It is in most of the standard anthologies.  But it differs from other narrative poems in that it is a story not fully told, but only hinted at, and the effectiveness of the poem lies in its combination of the incomplete narrative with a very poetic use of words to create a mysterious atmosphere.  So it is the atmosphere thus created that keeps this poem popular and interesting.

English: Ruined house at Swinthorpe The chimne...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was written by the British poet Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), who composed many poems (like this one) that are works of romantic fantasy, intended to delight by evoking a mood.  Today’s poem, which I shall discuss in parts, is called


‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor.
And a bird flew up out of the turret, 
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.

The poem begins with a mystery.  We are shown a traveller,  but we do not know who he is, or where he is from, or why he has come.  This immediately raises a questioning in the  mind of the reader that continues throughout the poem; but, as we shall see, it is a question that is never answered.  The poet increases the sense of mystery by setting the event at night, in the moonlight.  The Traveller knocks on the door of a house (we are not told whose it is or where exactly it is) that seems abandoned.  The only response to his knock is a bird that flies up out of a turret on the house.  But there is no human response.  It is so quiet that we hear the Traveller’s horse chomping on the grass “of the forest’s ferny floor.”  That just adds to the mystery — a house in a forest?  Is the house beginning to be overgrown by weeds and trees?

But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.

Notice the importance given what is NOT there in the poem:
No one descends — comes downstairs — to the Traveller.
No one looks out over a window sill (the ledge at the bottom of a window), now overgrown by leaves, into the Traveller’s grey eyes.

The Traveller stands there in the silence, puzzled by the absence of a response.

But now we find what the poem is really about.  It is a ghost story:

But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call. 

There are beings in the silent, moonlit house, but they are not the living; they are phantoms — ghosts — spirits of the dead.  The poet tells us there is a “host,” a large number of them.  And they listen in the quiet shadows, pierced here and there by moonlight, to the Traveller’s “voice from the world of men,” that is, to a voice from the world of the living.  The dead hear the voice of the living Traveller, as they throng the dark stairway with faint moonbeams falling on it, the stairway that goes down to an empty hall.  They listen in the “air stirred and shaken” by the “lonely Traveller’s call.”  The noise of his knocking and the sound of his call disturb the deathly silence in the house.

And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even 
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.

In the silence, in the absence of any answer to his loud knocking or to his call, the Traveller somehow senses there are beings inside the house, but that there is something strange and uncanny about them.  He can feel their presence, even though all is so still that the only motion and sound he notices is that of his horse still biting off and chewing the dark grasses.

The voice of the Traveller reverberates loudly in the stillness as he raises his head and calls out to whoever — whatever — is inside,  asks the strange residents to “Tell them I came,” to tell them “That I kept my word.”  Obviously there is a much larger unspoken story here, and the poet is giving us only a hint of it, which makes it all the more mysterious.

Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake 
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:

The listeners — the phantoms in the house, make not the slightest motion or response, even though every word the traveller speaks echoes his words through the shadows of the house, words from “the one man left awake.”  That means “the one man left alive.”  Left alive?  One left alive of many now dead?  What is the larger tale the poet is not telling us?  Why is the Traveller the only one left alive?  What is his connection to this house and those who once lived there? Why do ghosts — and so many of them — remain in the abandoned house?

All we have are these unanswered questions, the silence, the moonlight.

Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

The Traveller realizes there is nothing more he can do.  He had tried to fulfill some important, past promise, for some unexplained purpose, but the response is only silence.  Too much time has passed.  But the phantoms inside the shadowed house, are aware of everything.  They hear his foot touch the stirrup of the horse when he mounts it to leave.  They hear the sound of the iron horsehoes on stone cobbles as the horse turns to go with its rider.  And the phantoms hear

…how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

The alliteration — the repeated “s” sounds — are like a last whisper, replaced by the heavy silence that surges back like a wave to replace the temporary disturbance, when the last sound of the horse’s pounding hoofs (“plunging hoofs”) fades away.

The overall effect of the poem is to make us deeply feel a rather “spooky” but nonetheless strangely beautiful mystery in all this.  Who is the Traveller?  What promise had he made, and to whom, and why?  And what happened in the intervening years, leaving only ghosts within an abandoned and decaying house in a forest?  None of this is explained, and it leaves us wondering in the silent moonlight, which is exactly what the poet intended, and why the poem is so successful that it is still read today.

As you can see, there is not a great deal to this poem, nothing really profound or intellectual.  There is nothing difficult to understand.  It is just a mood, an atmosphere, a “poem of the imagination,” and the poet’s chief tool in creating that atmosphere is his lack of explanation, his refusal to tell us more.  It is a poem created out of shadows and moonbeams and spider webs, a word picture of deep silence and stillness troubled only momentarily by sound and movement, like a small pebble tossed into a quiet, dark well.

It is not surprising that Walter de la Mare, in addition to his poetry, wrote a few ghost stories, though nothing much remembered today.  But if you like an occasional movie with a shivers-up-the-spine feeling somewhat similar to this poem, you would probably enjoy the film “The Others,” which came out in 2001.




 There are some hokku that do not seem quite right but nonetheless have value for what they are.

There is, for example, this spring verse by Buson:

Osoki hi no   tsumorite tōki   mukashi kana
Long day ‘s accumulating far   past         kana

The long days
The distant past.

The point of the verse is this:

In spring one notices the lengthening of days, which seem all the longer now that the short days of winter are past.  As these spring days follow one another, each longer than the preceding, one begins to feel the length of the passing of time.  It makes the past, the “old days,” seem ever more distant.

The primary feeling of this hokku is a recognition of the relentless passage of time, which continually carries us away from the past and onward into the unknown future.  Did you notice that the second line — just one word in English — is visually shorter than the three words of the first line?  Yet if we say it in our minds it sounds very long, and adds to the sense of time passing slowly.

Blyth, rightly, I think, thought the poem in its literal form a bit too much for Westerners unfamiliar with hokku to grasp, so he elaborated it in his version, to bring out the sense of time slowly passing, yet the past constantly receding from us:

Slow days passing, accumulating, —
How distant they are,
The things of the past!

His use of “passing, accumulating” emphasizes the feeling of the slowness of the day that one gets with the lengthening of days in spring, and it increases the sense of time accumulating like dust in an attic, burying the past ever deeper.  He also lengthens in words the mention of the past (“How distant they are, / The things of the past!), where Buson has merely “The distant past.”  That lengthening also gives us the feeling inherent in the verse that the past — even the recent past — is gradually moving farther and farther away.

This is not hokku at its best, and if it were not for the sense of the length of the spring days, this hokku would be too “thoughty” for a verse form that excels in sensation and tends to avoid too much “thinking.”

Shiki, paradoxically, has a more concrete, if obvious, verse:

Flagler Beach
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sunahama ni   ashiato nagaki   haruhi kana
Sandy-beach on  footsteps long   spring-day kana

On the sandy beach,
A long line of footsteps;
The spring day.

The length of the spring day is reflected in the length of the line of footsteps that parallel the surf and extend beyond the range of sight.  I have chosen to use “long” to modify the footsteps, which is a more subtle way of expressing the length of the spring day for those familiar with hokku.

Blyth, however, chose to use “long” to modify the spring day in his version, making the point of the verse more obvious to Westerners, but less subtle:

On the sandy beach,
Long is the spring day.

In both, however, the emphasis is on the feeling of the feeling of the slowness of time one gets as the days of spring lengthen.

If you wonder why Blyth sometimes tends to make his hokku translations more detailed than they are in the originals, it is because his purpose in writing was to introduce Westerners not only to hokku (which, unfortunately, he called “haiku” in his day), but also to the very different (from Western verse) aesthetic sense behind hokku.

Sadly, Westerners usually just read the verses in Blyth’s books and seem to have ignored or glossed over his important explanations of the aesthetics behind them.   That failure contributed to the confusion that arose in the so-called “haiku movement,” which began in the West in the 1960s — a confusion and disarray that continues to this day, because the Western haiku movement never learned the aesthetic principles necessary for continuing the practice of hokku in the modern world.  That is why “haiku” today is generally something quite unlike hokku, even though often superficially similar in outward appearance.




Dear Readers.

My latest book, A Time of Ghosts, is now available as an ebook, which should make it much less expensive than the previous “print” edition.  See the bottom of this page for details.

Here is a preview chapter.  It is copyrighted, so if you want to use any of it elsewhere, please ask first.


I was born in the doorway between two worlds. The old China — the China of emperors and mandarins, of bound feet and marvels — had long been dying but was not yet dead. The new China — its coming anticipated with both hope and fear — was not yet born.

It happened in the great house of many rooms that the Emperor himself had given my grandfather many years before — a place where only the faintest of curtains separated the living and the dead.

My first memory is of ghosts. I was three or four years old. Near sunset on a spring day I went alone into my parents’ bedroom to use the chamber pot. As I sat there, a sudden chill filled the air, and I was seized by a mingled sensation of emptiness and loneliness. At the same time I felt someone watching me from behind, though my back was to the wall. I turned my head to the right and looked over my shoulder at the surface of whitewashed brick.

Out of the flat wall popped two figures in the flowing garments of a hundred years before. They passed behind me, floating half-in, half-out of the wall, in total silence. I jerked my head to the left as they reached that side. Yes, there were two of them. They were facing the wall now, and the one nearest reached back and out toward me, gesturing and grasping like a woman urging a hesitant child to take her hand and follow.

I screamed in horror and ran from the room shrieking and weeping. My family pretended not to believe me. My aunt, in spite of my terror, led me back into the room, where nothing was visible but two large, black spiders on the wall. “See there!” she laughed, “Only two harmless spiders, and you imagined that they were strange creatures!” But there was uneasiness in her forced ridicule. Though I was only a small child, I was not timid. Spiders did not scare me. And I knew it was not spiders that I had seen.

I soon fell ill with a burning fever, and a drastic change came over me. I often lost consciousness, but conscious or unconscious, my mouth muttered on and on in a voice not mine — a voice with the depth and vocabulary of an adult.

My father was beside himself, and took me to a well-known Chinese doctor who had studied Western medicine. Trained in the science of Europe, he examined me carefully but found no reason for the mysterious fever. Finally he admitted that he had never seen anything like it, and could do nothing. He did, however, refer my father to an odd individual schooled in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. And he told my parents that he had verified the Herb Doctor’s trustworthiness in the following way: He visited him as an ordinary patient complaining of illness, and requested an examination and a prescription. The Herb Doctor performed a thorough check, and declared his system to be in harmonious balance with nothing wrong. The Western-trained doctor, however, demanded a prescription for his “illness.” The Herb Doctor refused. The patient then requested a re-examination, but the result was the same — nothing was wrong, and no prescription was given. On further insistence, a third examination was performed, and still nothing was found amiss, and the Herb Doctor absolutely refused to prescribe for a non-existent problem.

Had the herbalist been a fake or unreliable, he would have taken up brush and ink to write a prescription, and would have charged a sizable fee. It would have been an easy thing to do at the urging of an irritated patient. But he was tested three times and preserved his honesty. That is why the “Western” doctor felt confident in recommending him to my parents.

I was quickly taken to the Herb Doctor’s modest home, where he received his patients. His name was Ch’ing Yu Chou, and he was striking and unusual in appearance. He wore the robes of a Chinese scholar, yet in a careless manner. The backs of his shoes had been pushed down through slipping them on and off repeatedly, until they flattened permanently and flapped like slippers when he walked.

By conventional standards his face was ugly — the skin dark and heavily wrinkled, the jowls and chin sagging like those of a dog. His head was pointed and bald, except for a few wisps of hair that clung to the edges. His two front teeth were unusually long, and set amid an unpleasant assortment of neglected and discolored neighbors. That remarkable head perched atop an extremely skinny body.

He examined me intently. My fever, he concluded, was the result of the terror of my experience. My soul had flown from the body, and a ghost had taken its place. That explained the strange adult voice and words coming from the small mouth of a child. It was time for the treatment. He reached out a clawed hand with nails some three inches long, and dipping an extended nail first into one small bottle and removing some powder, then into another from which he extracted a different powder, he prepared a mixture that he folded into a small paper packet. He said it was to be administered with the milk of a human, obtained from a woman who sold her own for such purpose.

The unusual medicine was fed to me while I was unconscious, still gabbling on in a man’s voice. As I lay writhing, head filled with nightmares, I suddenly screamed loudly. At that moment the invading presence left me and I felt the intense heat of the fever rapidly dissipated by a refreshing coolness that spread slowly throughout my body. The strange doctor had cured me. My father was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he gave Ch’ing Yu Chou, the odd Herb Doctor, a permanent dwelling in our family mansion, and with it financial support and friendship for life.

* * *

Mine was not the first strange experience in that great house. My grandfather was a military general of Manchu warrior lineage. He had a violent temper, yet could be kind and softhearted. Strongly built, with broad shoulders and heavy eyebrows, he wore the traditional robe and round cap, and his long, braided pigtail hung down behind as was customary in the latter days of the Ch’ing Dynasty. His mansion, in which I spent my childhood, was a large, white-plastered brick structure with a tiled roof. It lay on the Pearl River in the northern part of the city of Canton.

I have said that the Emperor gave it to him, and though officially true, it is not the whole truth. It really came to him through the wiles of the evil old Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, the real ruler of China, whose hands were stained with the blood of many.

At that time my grandfather was part of the aristocracy in the north of China. The Imperial Court of those days was a nightmarish drama of greed and lust for power, and Tzu Hsi, like a wicked puppeteer, held strings connected to all the secret places of the Forbidden City in Peking. Even the emperor Kuang Hsu danced at her will, and when his mouth moved it was the wishes of Tzu Hsi that were heard.

My grandfather had no stomach for her black designs, and she knew it. The Empress sniffed the air constantly for the slightest whiff of revolt, and feared that my grandfather owed his allegiance more to the puppet Emperor than to her. Consequently she contrived to remove him a safe distance from the capitol. He was informed that for “years of loyalty to the Emperor” he was to be given a fine mansion in the city of Canton, far in the South.

An imperial gift could not be refused, so there was no choice but to leave Peking. Tzu Hsi thus succeeded in banishing my grandfather under the guise of imperial benevolence, but her evil plans for him did not end there. Something far more sinister was to come — the mansion. There was something very wrong with it.

My grandfather soon heard fragments of a grim story. When given to my family, the house had lain empty for some two years. Previously it had been the residence of a high official who had initially supported the wicked Dowager Empress in her plot to keep her son, the Emperor, weak and subservient. But for some reason the former owner changed allegiance, and was quickly perceived as a threat to Tzu Hsi’s power.

The Empress, who seemed to know everything whispered in the shadows, struck quickly and violently. The official was executed in Peking, and all his family in Canton –relatives, children, even servants — were given the “imperial favor” of dying at the hands of soldiers or of committing suicide as the soldiers watched.

The mansion became a scene of unspeakable gruesomeness as soldiers stabbed weeping women and children, while other unfortunates fell on their own knives, hanged themselves, or jumped to their deaths down the deep well in the inner garden. That was the house of suffering and sorrow that Tzu Hsi gave smilingly to my grandfather, knowing he had no choice but to accept.

On the day my grandfather came to officially claim the mansion, he was borne in a palanquin carried by four men. A fearsome guard with a sword led the way. At the rear came ten others, carrying household possessions.

When the procession reached the outer gate, Grandfather got out of the palanquin and prepared to ceremonially enter the house as its new master. But he took only a few steps and halted in amazement. There on the road in front of the gate was a sewer grating, and on the curbstone beside it sat two uncanny creatures, like shrunken, shriveled old men, with outsized heads on tiny bodies with unnaturally small limbs. They were no more than two and one-half feet tall. Each had a palm leaf in his hand, and with these they waved my grandfather away, as if saying “Go back! Go back! Go back!” Even stranger, he found that only he could see them.

When he recovered his composure he addressed them politely, asking leave to pass. Still they motioned him away. Finally he lost patience and pushed forward. It was as though he walked into an invisible wall. He stumbled and fell, hurting his leg. But he was, as I have said, a man of violent temper and a general, and not to be dissuaded from his path, not even by big-headed ghosts. He managed somehow to get to his feet and awkwardly limped into the house, thus completing the ceremony of ownership.

When he came to the mansion a second time, the strange creatures again blocked his path, waving him away. Having already had his pride offended, he drew a large scimitar and struck at them. He succeeded only in damaging the valuable weapon, which also had been a gift from the Emperor. To harm an imperial gift was considered exceedingly shameful, and presaged ill fortune.

Grandfather, however, being headstrong and proud, was so furious and wrought-up that he planned a great defiance of the ghosts. He bought strings of big firecrackers and brought them on his third visit. There sat the strange, wizened creatures, waving him away. He hesitated not a moment, but lit the long strings of firecrackers and threw them directly at the ghosts. There was a great volley of sharp explosions, and my grandfather walked through the smoke and smell of burnt gunpowder and entered the house in triumph.

That night he fell ill. And as he slipped into an uneasy sleep, he had a peculiar dream. The creatures from the curbstone before the gate appeared to him, saying they had tried repeatedly to warn him away from the evil house. But not only had he ignored them, he had insulted them. So now they were departing, leaving him to his fate — his son would not live to carry on his name.

The illness never completely left my grandfather. At first he tried to forget the troubling dream, but disturbing events called it repeatedly to mind. His son — the Little Master — was only some four years old when odd things began to happen around him. Servants often heard him playing with someone, yet when they checked he was always alone. As he grew older they frequently heard him talking to another as he studied, but when they peeked in, no one was there but the Little Master.

Such strange happenings played so on the mind of my grandfather that he would not leave the child alone within the house, and when they went out he was always near the boy and always carried a sword. And then Grandfather ordered the well in the inner garden filled in. Too many strange sounds had been heard coming from it — weird voices, mutterings, whispering, singing, and sighing.

Time passed, but my grandfather did not relax his vigilance. The boy, now thirteen years old, practiced martial arts daily with a sword he kept hung high on a nail. One day after practice he went to return the weapon to its place. He had to stand on a stool to reach it.

There are two versions of what happened next. One says that as he reached up to hang the sword he slipped, and the nail-head, which somehow had become sharp, caught his hand and tore the skin as he fell. The other account, told by the servant who witnessed the event, says that as the boy stretched his arm up to hang his sword, a hand reached out of the wall, grabbed the lad’s wrist, and pulled his palm onto the sharp nail. The servant screamed and reached for the boy, but the Little Master slipped off the stool, the nail ripping his hand open as he fell.

It little matters which version is more accurate. The wound became terribly infected and the boy soon died of tetanus. My grandfather’s dark dream proved true. In spite of his great sorrow, my grandfather remained defiant. The ghosts dared to take his son? Then he would have another! And so within two years he adopted a young boy born to my aunt as his own.

* * *

A Chinese proverb states that no matter how great a family may be, its wealth will not outlast three generations. The life of the Herb Doctor, Ch’ing Yu Chou, who took up residence in our mansion, exemplified that.

He was born into a family of Manchu origin, descendants of the strongly-built warrior people who rode into China on horses and took the reins of power centuries before, initiating the Ch’ing Dynasty. For three generations his family had produced big, strong sons who became generals, military killers. The third-generation general, like those before him, was powerful and imperious, and had taken many lives. But when he produced an heir, the child was born premature and weak. And though the man had many wives, no more children were born to him.

So the aging general watched with concern as the sickly boy grew into his teens. Each year it became more obvious that the son had neither the strength nor the inclination for a general’s life. The old father found himself thinking about his own life. Looking back over the years that lay behind him like withered petals, what had his wealth and power really gained for him? Once he began such thinking, he could not stop. With growing uneasiness he recalled the men he had killed with his fierce strength, and he looked again at his gentle son. What would become of the boy in this vicious world?

At that moment something changed deeply and completely in the old general. He decided to abandon his riches and authority for the tattered robes of a Buddhist monk. He would live out his remaining days in a quiet monastery, where he hoped to find peace both in this life and the next. He gave his son in adoption to a Buddhist family and set out for a distant temple. There he had his head shaved and exchanged his fine silk garments for the coarse robes of a follower of the Enlightened One.

He had taken careful thought beforehand for his son’s future, making arrangements for his education in the art of herbal medicine at another temple so that the boy would have a vocation and could make his own way in the world.  His son thus began learning as a child the skills that would later save my life.

As the gentle, quiet boy grew into a young man, he found that he liked the peace and tranquility of monastic life. He thought to become a monk. The master of the temple, however, had long watched him closely, and told him plainly that he was not of the right material. The master had rightly discerned that the general’s son was homosexual, and consequently that it would not be good for him to live shut up in a community of men, any more than it would be advisable for a young heterosexual monk to live in a community of nuns. So though the young man liked the quiet, pious life of the monastery, he could no longer remain there.

Nonetheless, when he returned to the “World of Dust,” he lived in it much like a monk. In his childhood he had been surrounded by wealth and possessions. In the monastery he learned to do without. Now he was poor. But material things held no attraction for him, and he led a very simple life. His food, like that of monks, was vegetarian.

It seemed that none of the pride and aggressiveness of former generations lived on in him. If someone stepped on his foot, it was he who apologized. His behavior was like that of the third son in the old proverb:

A father asked each of his three sons what he would do if someone were to spit in his face. The first son replied, “I would say, ‘Please don’t do it. If you do it again I will fight.’” The second son answered, “I would take out a cloth and wipe the spit from my face.” But the third son replied, “I would just forget about it and let the spit dry on my face.”

The father did not approve the first answer because it revealed that the son took offense and was aggressive. He did not entirely approve the second answer because wiping away the spit showed that it was regarded as offensive. He approved the third son’s reply because it showed that no offense was felt and even the spit was not seen as repulsive. And that is how the Herb Doctor lived his life and conducted himself in human affairs.

Though he paid little attention to the condition of his clothing and did not bathe as often as some might have thought proper, he kept the Buddhist shrine in his room immaculately clean. There were always a few fresh flowers before the images of Shakyamuni and Kuan Yin. Shakyamuni is the historical Buddha who appeared in India. Kuan Yin is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, whose name means “The One Who Hears the Cries of the World.” Sometimes the flowers were gifts from grateful patients (he charged nothing for treatment, but accepted whatever was freely given); sometimes they were simple wild flowers he happened upon in his wanderings.

He spent much time in continuous repetition of the name of the Buddha Amitabha, noting each repetition by slipping another of the one hundred and eight beads on the string through his fingers. Often he sat lost for hours in meditation, his feet resting on his thighs in the lotus posture. It must have been restful and invigorating, because in our home he was always the latest to sleep and the earliest to rise.

Strange to say, he did have a wife. She was a girl who had been bought for him when he was young. She was given the chance to marry another when he went to study in the temple, but chose not to, and when he returned to the world they were married — a marriage never physically consummated.

* * *

Before the Herb Doctor could take up residence with us, there was still the matter of the house. Life could never be peaceful in a place so infested with tormented and malicious spirits. So he made ready to cleanse it and expel the ghosts.

First he went to the front of our dwelling. There he placed two sharp swords, which hung threateningly across the entrance. Then he moved to the center of the mansion, where on the house-post he suspended an old bag with a drawstring about its opening. Next he wrote many copies of a Taoist talismanic symbol. These he hung on all the walls. After that he cut up a great deal of paper into life-sized images of soldiers. Then he brushed a poem onto paper in black, fluid characters:

Unfair things have a reason;
If there is debt, a loaner exists.
Far, far away is Heaven;
So deep, deep, is Hell.
Your spirit may go wherever it will,
But trouble not the innocent.

And then he wrote another:

Good to good,
Bad to bad;
High is high,
Low is low;
Each returns to its origin.

He had everyone leave the house, being sure to close all the bedroom doors tightly. We watched as he seated himself in an open space in the garden, mumbling and mumbling incantation-like words.  As he muttered on and on, it seemed to my astonished eyes that the paper soldiers rose and stood vigilantly beside him.

All this took place on a calm and beautiful night. We were silent as he burned the papers on which he had written the poems. As they caught flame and flared up, I was jolted and frightened by a sudden crash of thunder. The quiet night turned almost instantly into a storm, and as rain began to pelt down there was a continuous, growling roll of thunder.

The Herb Doctor took a long, horsetail-like whisk, and with it he passed around the house, flicking the long hairs to and fro as he chanted. The spiritual force he created was so compelling that the evil spirits were driven to the entrance like leaves blown before the wind. There they met the swords. The gentler ghosts were pulled helplessly into the open bag on the central house-post. The Herb Doctor took the bag and pulled the drawstring tight. As he did so the thunder and rain ceased, and the night was tranquil again. A servant later told us that he saw blood on the swords across the house entrance. The doctor took the bag away, and we did not ask what became of it.

His final act on that strange night was to tell my grandparents that on the following day, they were to call Buddhist monks and nuns to the house. His instructions were followed, and for three days the air in the old mansion was filled with the chanting of sutras and dharanis to aid the tormented spirits in the other world.

Nine paper bridges were constructed and burned during the intoning of the texts to provide passage out of the nine levels of Hell. Paper money, clothes, and palanquins were burned as the monks and nuns prayed for the release of the suffering ghosts.

Now what is one to make of all this? I can only say that it did happen. I witnessed it, as did the others in the family. We can be modern and scientific and say that the ritual was performed for its psychological effect on us all. One may believe what one likes. But the fact is that from the night of the uncanny storm, all the strange sounds and apparitions within the house ceased, and one could feel that its unhealthy atmosphere had passed away. The living were now the only residents in the old mansion.

There is much more that one could say of the remarkable Ch’ing Yu Chou. I have called him the Herb Doctor for simplicity’s sake, though that was but one of his many skills. He was adept at calligraphy, music, poetry, and was in particular a great scholar of the I Ching, the Book of Changes, in which all that can happen in this world is set forth in the symbolic forms of trigrams and hexagrams. One who learns their transformations and mutations can accurately predict the future, though to do this is far more difficult than Western books on the subject would lead one to believe.

All the Herb Doctor’s learning was pervaded by a deeply Buddhist piety. This had a strong influence on my father, who was very impressed by his new-found friend’s freedom from bondage to self-importance and material possessions. The Herb Doctor treated life and its sorrows and joys as a temporary, passing show to which one should no more become attached than any sensible person would cling to the illusory images moving across a movie screen. One could see from his life that he had realized the significance of the old Chinese tale of the man who got what he wanted. This is the story in brief:

A poor man had just put his rice over the fire to cook when a sage appeared at his door. The two sat down and talked. “What would you like your life to be?” the sage asked. The poor man pondered, then replied that he could think of nothing more glorious than to be wealthy and powerful, surrounded by beautiful women. As he talked on, he suddenly found himself in completely different circumstances. The walls of his ramshackle hut faded and vanished, and he forgot all his years of poverty and discovered that he had become rich.

As time passed his wealth and power grew ever greater, and he experienced all the delights that money, authority, and possessions can bring. But as the years fell away, though it seemed that he had everything a man could want, still something seemed to be missing. He felt himself growing old. His body began to weaken, his senses lost their sharpness. Former delights could no longer please, and for newer pleasures he seemed pressed to find the strength.

Finally, as death drew inescapably near, he suddenly awoke in his own hut to the smell of rice cooked to perfection. He realized that it had all been a dream. All the years of his extravagant life — all the feelings, desires, and joys — everything had taken place during the time it took a pot of rice to cook.

Years later, after the Communists took control of China, my father worried about the uncertain future. He sadly warned the Herb Doctor that he was not sure he would be able to support him much longer. The old doctor was not the least disturbed. “Don’t worry,” he said, “Soon I shall have the means to support myself.” And it happened just that way. He was called by the Communists to become a professor of herbal medicine at the university.

I recall how my father once laughingly mentioned something the Herb Doctor had told him:

“Do you know what he said?” my father chuckled, “He told me that when he dies he will have a fine coffin and eight thousand people will attend his funeral!” He laughed again. “Actually, I think I will have to buy his coffin for him when the time comes!”

But things turned out precisely as the Herb Doctor predicted. He knew in advance the day of his death, just as very developed Buddhists are said to. And when that day came, he bathed and prepared himself and died quietly. And because he had become a very well known and highly respected university professor, eight thousand mourners attended his funeral.

And further, when this strange, kindly, self-effacing old man who had done so much good for me and for others was cremated, he had a final surprise for us. In his ashes were found sarira, the hard stone-like objects left behind when the bodies of great saints are burned.

*Copyright David Coomler & Ruby Tang



I am happy to report that those of you who have been waiting to read my book A Time of Ghosts will now be able to read it quite inexpensively, and in most any standard digital mode.

It was included in the “30 Best Books on China” reader recommendations in the Guardian (U.K.) newspaper, which had this summary:

“The true story of a child who endured the earth-shaking transition of China to communism and found himself inundated in a sea of puzzling propaganda and prejudice. Then, growing to manhood and facing a tremendous internal struggle, he finally embarked on a risky, adventurous, and remarkably revealing odyssey to find a door out of the mental prison that China under communism had become.”


Here is a list of the major sites where it is available (in addition to other online retailers), with direct URLs to the book that you may cut and paste to your browser:

This is for people who want to go directly to it without searching. They can cut and paste the URL of their choice: (for all major digital formats; use dropdown box to choose): (for Kindle; click on the book and it will bring up some very favorable reviews): (for Nook):

For iPad, (etc.) use ebookit .com (see above) format dropdown box, or use your iBooks app.

Ebookstore (for Sony Ereader):

Google books: (for Kobo):

As you may recall, I wrote this book over a long period of time through personal conversations with my (now deceased) physician and long-time friend Hok-Pang Tang.

Here is the “squiggle” on it:

Description: A Time of Ghosts is the exciting and absorbing account of Dr. Hok-Pang Tang, who was born into a wealthy and prominent Chinese family in the years before the Communist takeover, but whose family suffered a drastic fall with the coming of the the new regime.

It offers a vivid personal insight not only into a traumatic period in Chinese history, but also a rare and revealing glimpse at the “supernatural” subculture that survived even under Communism.

A Time of Ghosts follows Dr. Tang’s life from his overindulged childhood on through the bitter shocks of the transition to Communism, and finally to his repeated attempts to escape from a soul-destroying political and social system. It is a true personal history that reads like an adventure novel.

Because of its historical and human significance, I have long wanted to make this book easily and inexpensively available, and the digital format has enabled me to do that. My personal preference is for printed books, but I know that many now use the digital format through one device or another to save both space and money.

If you happen to read the book, I would very much like to hear your reaction to it. To make a comment (all comments here are private, unless requested otherwise), just click on the “comment” button on this page.