Buson wrote a pleasant summer hokku:

An evening breeze;
The water laps against
The heron’s legs.

R. H. Blyth made a very pertinent comment on this verse, a remark precisely in keeping the principles of modern hokku:

English: Adult Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodia...

Buson’s intuitions are strong and clear and quick enough to avoid the colouring of his mind by emotion, or its distortion by intellection.”

Blyth is, of course, talking about just what we practice in modern hokku. We write our verses without any “coloring of the mind” — without using them as symbols or metaphors or allegories — presenting them in all their simplicity and purity. And we present them without “thinking” added, which Blyth here terms intellection. That means we do not use hokku to preach, or to advocate political or social change, nor do we use them to make some abstract point.

Of course there will be people who will say, “This is not poetry! It is just an event with nothing added!”

Precisely. That event with nothing added is the point. If you take pleasure in it without all the obvious frills of poetry, without the clever additions of a “poet,” then it is likely you have the kind of mind that appreciates hokku for what it is.

I always say we should not think of hokku as poetry, because if we do, we automatically haul in all the baggage one has grown up associating with poetry in the West. But hokku is nothing like the bulk of Western poetry. In hokku the poetry lies in the event itself, not in anything a poet may say about it.  That is why the writer of hokku must be quick in grasping only that essential event, before the mind begins to add all kinds of thoughts about it, before it begins to decorate it with mental ornaments.

It is always helpful to ask why a particular hokku is effective.  In this one, not only do we have the absence of the coloring of the imagination and the absence of “thinking,” we also have a very straightforward harmony of similarity.  It lies in the movement of the evening breeze combined with the movement of the water lapping against the heron’s legs.  That is all we need when these two elements are united by the heron, who stands in them both.



We are moving (depending on where you are), from spring to summer.  In my region we have already had some very warm days, and so it is a good idea, in my postings about hokku, to now use the “summer” setting.

As readers know, the kind of hokku I teach is based on the best of old Japanese hokku, but for practical teaching purposes I sometimes modify them to fit an American environment (and you can do the same for your environment, wherever that may be, whether Australia or Austria or Finland or India or some other locale).

Shiki once wrote a spring verse:

The spring day;
Not a person stirring
In the village.

I would like to change it, however, to make it a more effective hokku by setting it in the season of summer, rewriting it like this:


The hot afternoon;
Not a soul stirring
In the neighborhood.

I hope you feel the improvement made by that change.  But do you know why it is better?

Let’s look again at Shiki’s “spring” version:

The spring day;
Not a person stirring
In the village.

If you are a regular reader here, you will recall that a hokku should manifest the character of a particular season through something happening in it.  The problem with Shiki’s verse is that it is inharmonious.  It first presents us with spring — the time of growing Yang — that is, of freshness, of increasing energy and growth.  But then Shiki tells us that not a person is stirring in the village.  That is contrary to the character of spring, which is increasing activity after the quiet of winter.  That is why Shiki’s verse does not feel right, even though he may actually have seen such a scene.

But remember, a hokku does not show us just any event, but rather an event that manifests the character of the season, and thereby makes us feel its significance.

That is why the change of season is a big improvement.  Let’s look again at the revised version:

The hot afternoon;
Not a soul stirring
In the neighborhood.

First it presents us with the heat of the afternoon — a strong physical sensation.  Then it gives us that heat (Yang) reflected in its opposite — inactivity (Yin).

Summer hokku are generally of two main kinds — harmony of similarity and harmony of opposites.  Harmony of similarity is the putting of two similar things together, like heat (Yang) and movement (Yang).  Harmony of opposites is putting together two things which, though opposite, are nonetheless perceived to be harmonious together.  Think of a warm fire (Yang) in winter (Yin), or dipping your hand into a cool stream (Yin) in the heat of summer (Yang).  Even though they manifest opposites, we naturally feel they go together.

So the revised verse uses harmony of opposites:

The hot afternoon;
Not a soul is stirring
In the neighborhood.

The inactivity of the neighborhood residents is very much in keeping with the heat of the afternoon.  We can say it “negatively reflects” the heat of the afternoon by showing us its opposite, just as drinking a hot cup of herbal tea when it is snowing outside also shows us a harmony of opposites, with one “negatively reflecting” the other (cold outside, heat in the cup of tea).

If you are familiar with R. H. Blyth’s work, you will note that I have borrowed his alliterative combination “soul stirring,” instead of Shiki’s less effective “person.”

Once you begin to understand how and why harmony and unity in hokku are important and why they work, you can easily put them to use in improving your own practice of hokku.




One more Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and then I will move on to something else.  It seems odd to be discussing a poem about autumn, given that it is spring now, but here it is nonetheless.

In this poem, we note something Hopkins frequently does; he talks about Nature, but applies his (Catholic) religion to it, believing that God is revealed in Nature.  William Wordsworth had as his theory of poetry that one should use the words of everyday language, “and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination.” Hopkins, with his often strange and creative vocabulary, cannot be accused of using only “everyday language,” but he is certainly guilty of throwing  a “coloring of the imagination” (his Catholic religion) over his subject matter (Nature).  I tend to think of it as “smearing God all over Nature.”  It is quite the opposite of the aesthetics of hokku, in which Nature is preferred without any “coloring of the imagination” (you will note that Wordsworth uses the British spelling “colouring,” while I use the American “coloring.”).

But on to the poem, which I shall discuss part by part — Hurrahing in Harvest.  A “hurrah” is a shout, an exclamation of joy and approval, so we could say this means “Rejoicing in the Harvest.”

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise

Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour

Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier

Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

The poet stands looking over the golden fields.  It is the end of summer.  He sees the stooks standing all over the now-harvested fields of grain.  Stooks are sheaves of grain placed upright together in a shape like a teepee.  Hopkins finds them beautiful in a barbarous (“unsophisticated, rough, wild”) way.

Then he looks up to the sky above, and comments,

what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour

Of silk-sack clouds!

The “wind-walks” are the sky itself, the open sky, the various routes through which the moving clouds pass as well as the gaps between them.  Hopkins likens the white clouds to smooth and shiny sacks made of silk, remarking on the the beauty of their changes as they drift across the sky.

…has wilder, wilful-wavier

Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

He asks himself, has there ever been anything so wild and wilful and wavy as this “meal-drift” that  moulds itself, then melts across the skies?  He is speaking of the shapes and transformations in shape of the clouds.  He likens them to “meal-drift,” that is, to the white dust that drifts in the air and gathers here and there in an old-fashioned mill when grain is being ground into flour.  He likens the clouds to this fine, white powder, and describes it as moulding (American spelling “molding”) itself together into one cloud form, then melting, changing shape, into another form.  Again, he is speaking of the visual transformations of the clouds as they pass across the sky.

But now Hopkins brings in religion and begins smearing it over all he sees:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, 

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

Hopkins walks along, and as he walks he raises his eyes to the clouds and the sky, and simultaneously, he says, he lifts up his heart — his emotions.

This phrase “lift up heart,” would have come easily to Hopkins, because he would have heard it often in the Roman Catholic mass, when, in a preface to the consecration of the host (bread), the old Latin mass ran like this:

Priest: Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you).

People: Et cum spiritu tuo (And with your spirit).

Priest: Sursum corda (Lift up [your] hearts).

People: Habemus ad Dominum (We lift them up to the Lord).

So Hopkins lifts up his eyes and his heart to the skies, and looks

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

So he is doing just what the Catholic mass says:  he is lifting up his heart to the Lord (Jesus), whom he finds in the clouds and sky.  He looks at the gloriously beautiful scene of passing clouds in the blue sky in order to “glean our Savior,” that is, to see Jesus in their beauty.  “To glean” is an old term from grain harvesting.  It meant originally to gather stalks of grain accidentally or even intentionally left behind by the reapers, a practice of benefit to the poor, as in chapter two of the biblical story of Ruth; here Hopkins uses it to mean “gather.”  Like a gleaner, he looks at the beauty of the skies at summer’s end to “gather” Jesus, to see him there.  And he fancies that he also sees a response from Jesus in the clouds:

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

He asks his eyes and his heart what looks (of a person) and what lips (of a person) ever before gave him a rapturous greeting of love in “realer, rounder replies” — in replies more “real” and more “round” (both roundish in shape and round as meaning “full, complete.”  In other words, he sees the clouds in the sky as the replies, the unspoken but real and visible “words” of Jesus to Hopkins, as he gazes up at them.  So Hopkins is not only fantasizing that he is seeing Jesus in the sky and clouds, but he also imagines that he sees Jesus expressing love back to him and speaking to him in the changing shapes of the roundish clouds.

But Hopkins does not stop his imaginings there:

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder

Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—

Now Hopkins looks to the low hills, blue in the distance, calling them “azurous hung hills” — hills hung with blue (azure).  He wrote this poem on the 1st of September in the year 1877, on his way home from fishing in the Elwy River in the Vale of Clwyd (pronounced “Clooid”) in Wales, so we may easily picture hills in the distance.  And these bluish hills, Hopkins imagines, are the shoulder of Jesus, who carries the world.  Hopkins sees them thus as majestic, both strong as a stallion (male horse), but also “sweet” — gentle and pleasant — as violets. We may also think of “azurous hung hills” as meaning the distant hills with the blue (azurous) sky above them and forming their background.

One cannot help thinking that Hopkins seeing Jesus in the clouds of the sky as someone giving a “rapturous love’s greeting,” and seeing him in the hills as “strong as a stallion” yet sweet and mild, expresses a thinly-veiled homosexuality, and after all, Hopkins was homosexual by nature.

Hopkins says of the sky, the clouds, the hills,

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting; which two when they once meet,

The heart rears wings bold and bolder

And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

That is, the beauty of the sky with its passing clouds and the blue hills were things already there before Hopkins paused to notice them.  But before he was there, a beholder was wanting — was lacking.  But when these two things — the scene and its beholder — meet, then the heart suddenly “leaps up” as Wordsworth would say, as though it has wings carrying it upward with wild, beating emotion, and it

...hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Or, as we would say today, the beauty of the scene nearly knocks him off his feet.



We have seen in earlier postings how the 19th century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered from terrible episodes of depression, the worst aspects of which were depicted in his poem I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark.BonnatJac.

We may see today’s poem as a mate to that other work, because it deals with the same topic, but in a slightly different way. It has the odd title Carrion Comfort.

We should first make sure we know what is meant by carrion. Put very simply, it means dead and decaying flesh. It has a strong undertone of something very unpleasant, as when we speak of vultures feeding on carrion — on dead animals. Many humans, too, eat dead animals, but tend to avoid any signs of decay in what they eat. That did not stop me from now and then remarking to meal mates, when I was younger, “I see you are eating another slice of dead cow.”

But back to the poem.

Let’s take it, as usual, part by part. I will divide the first stanza into two parts for convenience:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

Hopkins, regarding his fits of depression, decides not to give in to them. He calls his deep depression by the capitalized name “Despair,” and he speaks to it. He describes Despair as “carrion comfort,” saying he will not let his mind concentrate on despair, which would be like trying to nourish his soul/mind on foul and decaying flesh. That, he does not feel, would be a true and lasting comfort — only the inferior comfort of surrender.

Further, Hopkins says, he will not untwist the slack last threads of man in himself. By that he means he will not take away the last few strands of manly strength he has in him, even though the thread made from those few strands that remain is “slack,” is loose and seems weak. So Hopkins is saying he will not give up what little strength he has left, he will not give in to despair. His comparison of strength to frayed thread is based upon the making of thread and yarn and rope by twisting many strands of fiber together to make the thread or rope strong. But Hopkins says he has only a few strands left in his frayed thread, and he will not let those untwist and give up what strength is left to him.

He adds,

ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

Not only will Hopkins not give up his last strands of strength, but he also refuses, when most wearied, most exhausted by depression, to just give up and cry “I can no more” — I am unable to struggle further. On the contrary, he says, “I can.” He can do something: he can hope, he can wish to the day to come, not only the literal day, but also day used as a metaphor for the light of peace and release as opposed to the dark night of his anguished depression. And, very importantly, Hopkins has the option of NOT choosing “not to be.” He is saying he is still free and strong enough to say he will not choose suicide.

In what follows, we shall see that Hopkins tends to combine his notion of Despair with his notion of God. This is a view of his deity similar to that in parts of the “Old Testament,” the Hebrew Scriptures, in which, as in the Book of Job, God can not only help humans, but can also afflict them terribly with suffering and pain:

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

He speaks to Despair/God, whom he visualizes as a terrible, huge lion-beast. Hopkins asks why God would rudely place and push his world-shaking (“wring-world”) right foot upon him, like the huge, heavy, clawed paw of a lion. And why would God/Despair look at Hopkins’ bruised body (“bones”) with “darksome devouring eyes,” as though he would eat him up? And why would he “fan” (blow against) Hopkins mental pains like windy storms (“turns of tempest”), while Hopkins lies (heaped) there, frantic to avoid those mental pains, and wishing to flee, to escape them?

There are subtle biblical hints in the background here. The “Lion” image calls to mind Jesus, one of whose titles is “Lion of Judah.” And Hopkins probably had, in the back of his mind, a reference to Psalm 22 as it is in the Catholic Douai version of the Bible, in particular lines 14 and 15:

“They have opened their mouths against me, as a lion ravening and roaring.
I am poured out like water; and all my bones are scattered. My heart is become like wax melting in the midst of my bowels.”

Christians traditionally considered that a prophecy of the suffering of Jesus, and Hopkins likely had it in mind in regard to his own sufferings. But paradoxically, I suspect that also in the background of Hopkins’ “lion” metaphor is this biblical phrase from I Peter 5:8:

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:

Given his pain, we should not be surprised if Hopkins was feeling both good and evil oppressing him. And in fact in the Old Testament, God was generally considered one who ultimately brought both good and evil to humans, as in the book of Job, when God and Satan play a cruel little game to see just how much suffering God’s servant Job could take without cursing God.

Now Hopkins tries to religiously justify his anguish, his own deep depression, to himself. Why does God make him suffer the pains of depression?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

I cannot help feeling there is something psychologically unhealthy, something masochistic, about Hopkin’s justification of his own sufferings here. He tells himself he suffers

That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.

He is saying that God makes him suffer so that he may be cleaned and purified, just as one beats the chaff (seed coverings, etc.) away from stalks of grain after it is harvested, so that the grain might be “sheer and clear.” Hopkins is using “sheer” here in its sense of “pure, unadulterated.” He says God is whipping him with the pains of depression just as grain is beaten in threshing, to clean and purify it.

And what effect does that justification of his own despair have on Hopkins? He says,

Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

Put into everyday English, it means:

“No, in all that toil, in all that ‘coil’ [meaning here ‘disturbance/worry/trouble], it seems that since I ‘kissed the rod,’ or rather the hand holding that rod, see, my heart [mind] has drunk strength [like an animal lapping liquid], has ‘stolen’ [here he means ‘cleverly taken’] joy, and would laugh and cheer.

Hopkins is referring to an old expression, to “kiss the hand that holds the rod,” in other words, to be grateful for the punishment that is used to correct one’s behavior. It comes from the days when children would be beaten with a wooden rod, like a willow switch or a stick, when they had “been bad.” “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is another old expression from the time when children were physically whipped (a time which is not past in some places).

Hopkins is saying, then, that he has changed his attitude toward his depression, that instead of raging against it or giving up entirely to despair and killing himself, he has since decided to regard his depression as a purifying punishment from God, a suffering that is actually beneficial to him because it cleanses him, and so he metaphorically kisses the hand of God that punishes him (“holds the rod.”) — he is grateful for his own suffering.

Quite honestly, I doubt that Hopkins really was grateful for his deep sufferings, but he had converted to Catholicism and was a Jesuit, and no doubt felt he had no choice but to either accept his pain as the good will of God, or else to give up and end his life. So this is Hopkins trying to talk himself into believing that his suffering is ultimately good for him, and a sign of God’s love.

Hopkins tells us that with his attitude changed, he now “would cheer.” And so he asks whom he would cheer (or who he would cheer, for those of you who prefer getting rid of the old “whom” form):

Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Who does he cheer then? Does he cheer the “hero” (meaning God) whose divine actions (“heaven-handling) threw Hopkins down into despair — God, whose foot metaphorically stepped upon, trampled Hopkins? Or does Hopkins cheer himself, the “me” that fought against Despair/God? Which one is it? Is it each, both of them? He implies by the last line that he cheers everything together — God, who gave him suffering, Hopkins himself, who refuses to give in to his deep despair, and everything that happened on that night, or rather that year of his anguish that is now over (now done darkness), that night when Hopkins (“I wretch”) lay on his bed metaphorically wrestling with despair, with his God.

You will note that Hopkins uses repetition for effect, speaking of the time when he, in his wretchedness, lay

wrestling with (my God!) my God.

The “my God!” in parentheses is to be taken as an exclamation of wonder and awe over the fact that in fighting against the suffering of his depression, Hopkins has come to the realization, “My God! I have been wrestling with my God!” So the meaning of the first “My God!” is like saying “Good grief!” or “Wow!” — “Wow! I was wrestling with God!”

This notion of wrestling with God comes from the story of the patriarch Jacob in Genesis, chapter 32. In that story, a man comes to Jacob by night and wrestles with him. When morning comes, the man asks to be released, but Jacob will not release him until the man blesses him. Jacob realizes that the man is actually God. Knowing that, we see that it is upon this biblical story of a wrestling match with God by night that Hopkins has based his poem. He is saying that “Just as Jacob wrestled with God by night and endured until day, and was blessed, so in my dark struggle with despair I will not give in, because I have really been wrestling with God, and he will bless me.”

Of course Hopkins is just being poetic here, and it is difficult to say to what extent this “kissing the hand that holds the rod” maneuver really brought any comfort to him. But no doubt in his fits of depression he was willing to grasp at anything.



Most of you have heard of John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath, an account of the terrible days of the Dust Bowl in the United States.  Some of you may dust-stormknow that the transformation of midwestern agricultural fields into clouds of blowing, choking dust was caused by very poor farming practices.  Very few of you probably know that those days were followed by a drastic change in midwestern agriculture — vastly increased pumping of water from the ground.

Do you know what an aquifer is?

The term comes from two Latin words meaning “water” and “to bear/carry.”  That is descriptive, because an aquifer is a natural underground reservoir of water.

Look at this picture:

That immense blue area, spreading through eight different states in the midwestern United States, is said to be the largest aquifer in the world.  It supplies water for irrigation and water for drinking and other farm and residential uses.

It underlies nearly the whole state of Nebraska, where one of my favorite writers, Loren Eiseley, was born.  It is very important to the agricultural production of the United States.

And it is rapidly disappearing.

It is not vanishing because of global warming.  It is vanishing because it is being heavily overused — an overuse that began only in the 1940s.

Not long ago — only a few decades back — the Ogalalla aquifer had an average depth of about 240 feet.  Now the average depth is 80 feet.

What is the reason?  Humans are pumping the water out much faster than Nature can restore it.  It is said that the time required to restore the aquifer naturally would be some 6,000 years.  At present usage rates,  it is likely that the water in the aquifer will be gone in about 20 to 25 years.  Imagine what that will mean for all the people living in those states, and consequently for the rest of the United States.

The problem is that just as humans seem to be willing to use every last drop of oil in the world rather than conserve, so they are willing to use every last drop of water in the aquifer rather than to seriously limit pumping and to change their lifestyles.

One study* of the problem states,

Crops that benefit from the aquifer are cotton, corn, alfalfa, soybeans, and wheat. These crops provide the Midwest cattle operations with enormous amounts of feed and account for 40% of the feedlot beef output here in the U.S.

What that means is that a good part of the water depletion in the Ogallala aquifer is for the purpose of growing crops used in feeding cattle for slaughter — cattle (and pigs) for use as human food.  

Now that is just one more good reason to stop eating animals and become vegetarian or vegan.  And it is a good reason not to wait to do that.


*The Ogallala Aquifer
Manjula V. Guru, Agricultural Policy Specialist
Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Click to access ogallala_aquifer.pdf