In recent postings I have talked about how important unity is to hokku– how a relationship must be felt by the reader among the elements included in the verse.  And I have talked about how the reader must make a small intuitive leap in order to “put everything together,” to see how those elements relate.

Here is another basic example.  There are numbers of hokku which have to do with human psychology, and even use the words “I” or “me,” which ordinarily we avoid, but which treat these  (or should) objectively, the same way one would write about a buzzing fly or a croaking frog.

This summer example is by Taigi:

“There goes a firefly!”
I almost said;

The key to this verse is the last line, which is really the setting in which the event happens.  You will recall that in hokku, the “setting” is the wider environment or context in which something occurs.  Here it is solitude, and in this solitude the writer suddenly sees a firefly flitting past.  In the childlike excitement of the moment, his first urge is to call it to the attention of someone.  But even before the words can escape his mouth, he remembers that there is no someone; he is alone, and so the words remain unspoken.

The focus in this verse should not be on any kind of emotionalism, not “Poor me!  Here I am all alone!”  Instead, it should be on the natural urge to share something exciting with someone else, a common human trait.

It is very easy for Westerners to wrongly focus on the personal aspect of such verses, because so much of Western poetry deals with the “I”  — “I think,” “I want,” “I like,” “I hate,” “I love,” but in hokku, humans are just a part of Nature, and their emotions are not to be exalted above it.  Hokku is more like the rarer Western poetry that treats human psychology objectively.

In that regard, Taigi’s hokku is a shorter and eastern version of the objective sentiments found in Robert Frost’s poem The Pasture, only in Taigi the “you” is present only by its absence:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf 
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.




Context makes a huge difference in hokku, even if one uses the same subject.

Let’s talk about dogs.

Issa wrote two hokku — one a summer hokku, one autumn — in which a dog is leading someone somewhere.  But one is a rather mediocre hokku, while the other is quite good.

Here they are.  First, summer:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

When issa says “hermitage dog,” he really just means the dog from his own poor little dwelling.

The verse lacks unity and harmony.  In anyone educated in hokku, there will be the question as to what relationship exists between the dog going ahead, and the looking for a place to view fireflies?  The answer is that there is no apparent relationship, or an unclear relationship, or at least none that arouses a sufficiently suggestive feeling in a reader that might make this a worthwhile verse.

Now let’s look at an autumn verse by the same author, also with a leading/guiding dog:

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

That is Blyth’s translation, and it can hardly be bettered.  In this there is a world of difference from the first example.  It is the season of autumn, the time of weakening Yin forces, of Nature dying and returning to the root.  That is in harmony not only with the graves, but also with the old dog himself.  And as I have said before about this particular verse, we have the feeling that the old dog has made this trip to the graves with the family many times in many years, and that gives us the feeling of the passage of time, of aging.  All of this gives the verse depth, and that is why it is much superior to the “firefly viewing” example, which seems quite flat and uninteresting:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

Now if Issa had said instead for his summer hokku something like:

Letting the dog
Choose the way;
Firefly viewing.

That would make at least some improvement.  It would indicate that, like the haphazard appearance of the lights of fireflies, the writer is in keeping with that randomness, letting the dog choose which way to go, while the writer follows after, accepting whatever comes.

No doubt there are many other ways one might improve on Issa’s summer verse, but my point here is just to show how one judges quality in a hokku.  As you can see, suggestiveness and a feeling of unity are good guides.  Without these, a hokku tends to be flat and tasteless.



As most of you know, Bashō wrote this spring hokku, which R. H. Blyth translated as:

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

Buson wrote a summer hokku, which Blyth rendered thus:

In the old well,
A fish leaps up at a gnat:
The sound of the water is dark.

What is not obvious from these translations is that both Bashō and Buson used a similar beginning in the original:

Furu ike ya = The old pond;

Furu ido ya = The old well;

Also, both used a verb meaning “leap/jump” — tobu — though Bashō used it in the form tobi.

In addition, both used the sound of something:

Mizu no oto = the sound of water (literally “water’s sound”)
Uo no oto – the sound of a fish (literally “fish’s sound”)

We can better see these similarities in English if we translate more literally than Blyth.  Here is Bashō:

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

And here is Buson:

The old well;
The sound of a fish leaping at a gnat
Is dark.

It is not hard to see that the middle line of Buson is awkwardly long in English.  But interestingly, if we take away his added “dark,” we are left with a hokku remarkably like that of Bashō, even though we are forced to move the “leap/jump” to the last line to avoid  syntactical problems in English:

The old well;
The sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

That in itself, without Buson’s added comment that the sound is “dark,” works quite well as a hokku.  And it also shows beginning students how interesting variations on the same form are easily possible, and can have quite a different effect depending on the elements one uses.

Buson’s hokku was possible in Japanese, because “hokku” Japanese (not the same as modern Japanese) was very telegraphic, and much could be crammed into seventeen phonetic units:

Furu ido ya  ka ni tobu   uo no oto kurashi
Old pond ;    gnat at leap fish ‘s sound dark

Bashō’s hokku was:

Furu ike ya   kawazu tobi-komu   mizu no oto
Old pond ;   frog       jump-in         water ‘s sound

If Buson had followed Bashō’s form more strictly, he would have had:

Furu ido ya   ka ni tobu   uo no oto
Old well ;    gnat at leap  fish’s sound

That makes only fourteen phonetic units in Japanese, whereas the standard for old Japanese hokku was seventeen; so Buson filled up the missing units by adding the word kurashi — “dark” — which really is superfluous.  A reader educated in hokku will intuit the darkness of the well (and consequently of the sound) without the addition.

What this demonstrates is one reason why, in modern hokku, we do not have a rigidly fixed number of syllables that must be included in a verse.  We just keep the verse brief and simple, and that matter takes care of itself.

If anyone wonders what happened to the word ya in the last two literal English translations, it is represented by the semicolon, which gives us the same effect of a meaningful pause, and thus serves the same function of separating the longer and shorter parts of these hokku.

If I were to render Buson’s full verse into English, it would be like this:

An old well;
The dark sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

The Japanese word translated “gnat” here — ka — is actually the word for “mosquito.”  But not only would those three syllables really complicate keeping a translation of this verse short, but also, in common usage, “gnat” and “mosquito” in England and America are virtual synonyms.  That is why both Blyth and I have chosen to use “gnat” here.

Of course no one needs to know old Japanese in order to write hokku in English.  One only needs to know the principles and techniques of hokku.  I just include the Japanese here to show how structure and language affect composition.

I should also add that using the preposition “in” as Blyth did in his Buson translation beginning “In the old well” is not really necessary in modern English language hokku.  Because of the principle of unity in hokku, an educated reader will automatically know that the fish leaping at a gnat is IN the old well.  That enables us to use the original beginning quite literally, with “The old well” or “An old well” as both the first line and the setting of the verse.



People often forget that in learning hokku, one does not just learn how to write them, but also how to read them. The same principles that apply to writing apply also to reading, and both are important.  If one does not know how to read a hokku, it will fail just as miserably as if it were the creation of a person who does not know how to write hokku.

One very significant characteristic of hokku is unity. That means, as I have said before, that a hokku is not just a random assemblage of things tossed together into a brief verse. For example, I could write

The dog barks;
A bouquet of dried flowers
In a window.

That would not be a hokku, in spite of the fact that it is in three lines, and despite correctly having a longer and a shorter part separated by punctuation (which also ends the verse). So merely having the correct “format” does not make a hokku, just a poor imitation.

What is wrong with it? It has no unity. There is a barking dog, and a bouquet of dried flowers in a window, but there is no relationship felt between them. They are just things and events thrown together. It does not matter that in the “real world” these may have actually been experienced. The fact remains that for the reader, there is no perceived relationship, no sense of unity, and that is why it fails as hokku.

This is something that people new to hokku, particularly those coming to it from other kinds of brief verse, tend not to grasp until it is pointed out to them.

Issa wrote a hokku that is a very basic lesson in unity, because we can easily see in it how the parts of the verse must relate to one another for it to make sense. If the reader does not make that connection, there is no hokku. That means the reader must trust that there is a connection, and the writer must know the aesthetics and principles of hokku well enough to make sure that the connection is there. If either writer or reader fails in this, the hokku will also be a failure.

English: Housefly

So here is Issa’s verse — only eight words in English. It is a summer hokku (remember that a hokku should always be marked with the season):

One man
And one fly;
The big room.

Knowing that in hokku things relate to one another, a reader familiar with this principle will intuit that the man and the fly are IN the big room. It does not need to be stated in words. And further, from his or her own experience, the reader will immediately feel the bothersomeness of that tiny fly to the one man in the very large room. We do not have to be told that the fly will keep lighting on the man’s forehead, or on his book, and the man will swat at it with his hand and it will fly away, only to be back again to trouble him repeatedly. And all of this is only made more bothersome by the fact that it is a summer day. One can even hear the buzzing of the fly in the  warm silence of the room.

In addition to unity —  the relationship between room, man, and fly — this hokku demonstrates rather obvious humor, which we feel in the “big” man in the much bigger room at the mercy of a tiny fly.

That does not mean all hokku should have this kind of psychological humor that is really very close to senryu. That is not the lesson of this verse for us. What we should learn from it is that everything in a hokku should be felt to relate to everything else in a meaningful way, so that we see the underlying unity and harmony of life that we so often do not notice in the apparent disparateness of things.

Today, for example, it is pouring rain where I am, even though it is the middle of June. I am staying indoors, quietly writing this posting. My remaining indoors relates to the rain, because when it rains, particularly when it pours, people tend to react by staying under shelter. And the rain seems to encourage quiet in us rather than action, which is precisely why I am sitting here tapping these keys to tell you about it instead of occupying myself with something else.

So please keep in mind, as you begin to learn hokku, that things should relate to one another in a verse, and that when a verse is read, the reader should be able to see that relationship. Otherwise, if the writer does not understand this principle of hokku, there will be nothing for the reader to “put together,” no threads uniting everything in the verse. That leaves us with just a three-line brief verse, a random assemblage of unrelated things. Whatever one may call it, it cannot be legitimately called a hokku.



Bashō wrote:

In the morning dew,
Muddied and cool —
The melons.

Just one look at that should tell readers that hokku is nothing at all like what we think of as “poetry” in the West, which is why I generally do not refer to hokku as “poems.”  To think of them as “poems” or “poetry” just confuses the reader unfamiliar with hokku.

This is a particularly stark example.  It just presents the reader with four elements — morning dew, mud, coolness, and melons, but those all combine to form one harmonious unity, one sensory impression.

R. H. Blyth used this verse (but in his own translation) as an example of verses that “baffle the commentator.”  He then says,

All he might say is legs to the snake, horns to the rabbit, for these lines bring us as close to the thing-in-itself as possible.”

What he means is that such a hokku is so very close to the primary sensory experience that anything added would take away from or distort it needlessly, like trying to add legs to a snake or put horns on a rabbit.

This verse is a primordial sensory experience, and it is the kind of verse that would come from the mind of child, from the early years when sensory experience is so important — the taste of a thing, its feel when touched, its sound, its visual appearance, its smell — before we grow older and begin adding our own mental elaboration and ornamentation to everything we see.  Or as we say in hokku, “Before thinking and commentary are added.”

The hardest thing, of course, is to be aware enough to note a subject like this, one that is so completely simple yet nonetheless has an inexpressible sense of significance to it.  Move away from that ever so slightly, and it is all lost.

If we were to analyze this verse structurally, it breaks down like this:

Setting: In the morning dew
Subject: The melons
Action: Muddied and cool

Now you may say that technically, “muddied and cool” are descriptive words, not literally “action.”  But remember that in hokku “action” is just a reminder word that hokku should have something moving or changing.

“Well,” you may say, “I don’t see anything moving or changing in this.”  Technically you would be right, but intuitionally we feel the change that early morning brings, with its cool dewdrops that turn the dust on the melons to mud.  And so that is our “action” in this verse.




If you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know how important an understanding of Yin and Yang are to the practice of hokku.  And you will know that speaking very broadly, Yin is cold and passive, while Yang is warm and active.

We are now entering the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means we are entering the most Yang season of the year.

We must remember, however, that Yin and Yang are relative terms.  So even though summer is, overall the “Yangest” of months (well, that word seems to work in English) nonetheless it too has its stages; and here they are:

Early summer is increasing Yang and decreasing Yin, so we may say that it is a “Yin” time of summer, but note that “decreasing Yin.”

The height of summer is the most Yang time, but as you will recall, when Yang reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite; so just when summer Yang gets to its highest point, that bit of Yin begins to grow in it, which takes us to late summer.

Late summer is decreasing Yang and increasing Yin, which you can see is just the opposite of spring.  So to summarize (should I say “summerize” in this case?), for convenience we can divide summer into three parts:

Early summer is growing/increasing Yang, the height of summer is maximum Yang, and late summer is decreasing Yang.

Those descriptions should call to mind the “set phrases” for the three phases of a season in hokku — “begins,” “deepens,” and “departs” (or their equivalents), that may be used for the setting of a hokku,  for example:

Summer begins;
Summer deepens;
Summer departs;

Now, having gotten through that background, we can take a look at what all this means in practical terms for hokku.

It applies to the two kinds of harmony in hokku — harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast.  Harmony of similarity means using elements in a hokku that are similar in some way.  Harmony of contrast means using elements that we tend to think of as “opposites” in some way.

To make that plain, a hot cup of tea and a hot summer day are “similar,” so if we put them both in a hokku, we have harmony of similarity.

A cold block of ice and a hot summer day are contrasts/opposites, so if we put them together we have harmony of contrast.

You may be wondering why we speak of opposite or contrasting things put together in a hokku as  still having harmony — why aren’t they inharmonious?  It is because we tend to feel that such opposites naturally go together, therefore harmony.

Now a very important part of Yin and Yang is that each calls forth its opposite.  What does that mean?  It is easy to understand once I tell you about it, and you are already aware of it, though you may have never thought of it in these terms.  It is simply that living things react to strong Yang in a Yin way, and they react to strong Yin in a Yang way.

That is why, on a hot summer day (Yang), you want to jump in a lake or river (Yin); similarly, on a cold winter’s night (Yin) you want a blazing fire on the hearth and a warm blanket (Yang).  It also explains why people in very sunny climates (Yang) tend to develop darker skin (Yin) as protection, and why people in very cloudy climates (Yin) tend to develop lighter skin (Yang), such as is found in Ireland, for example.  Of course that is something that happens over thousands of years, but it happens nonetheless.

So now you know what is behind this summer hokku by Taigi:

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

It is the middle of a hot summer day, and that calls forth a Yin reaction, which in this case is to take a nap — to become inactive.  And we see that through the gradual slowing and eventual motionlessness in sleep of the hand that was fanning the drowsy subject of the verse.  It is a Yin reaction to a Yang environment.

We see a similar, though less obvious example, in a summer hokku by Buson (I translate loosely here):

What joy!
Striding through a stream,
Sandals in hand.

Now that would lose its significance if we did not know it as a summer hokku, because it is the contrast between the warmth of the day and the coolness of the stream on his bare feet that gives the writer such delight.

So now you have a basic understanding of the Yin and Yang of summer, and how it applies to hokku.  Of course there is more to be said on that subject, but for now I will just close with the last words from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen:

Der sad de begge To Voxne og dog Børn, Børn i Hjertet, og det var Sommer, den varme, velsignede Sommer.

“There sat the two of them, grown up yet still children, children at heart, and it was summer, the warm, blessed summer.”



Issa wrote a hokku for the end of spring:

Sough, sough —
Spring departs;
The grass of the fields.

If you do not like the respectable old word sough for the rustling, sighing sound of the wind through the grasses, you might prefer something else that is onomatopoeic:

Sssss, sssss —
Spring departs;
The grass in the fields.

But actually, for me the first one is problematic because few people know the meaning or pronunciation of “sough” these days.  And the “Sssss” of the second one might be just meaningless and confusing to readers untrained in hokku, who are not likely to intuit that it is the sound of the (unmentioned) wind in the grasses.

So I will go with a translation more obvious and easily grasped, yet very effective:

Departing spring;
The wind bends the grasses
Of the fields

Issa watches the high grasses in the fields, bending and sighing in waves as a gentle wind rustles across them, and he realizes that spring is ending.

Edward FitzGerald, in his reinterpretation of Omar Khayyam, saw the end of spring and expressed openly what is only latent in Issa:

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

It is a lamentation of the passing of spring, and with it, of the passing of youth, the springtime of our lives.  The days of our youth are a tale in a book with fragrantly-scented pages, but that brief story ends, that book closes, never to be opened again.  That, of course, is metaphor.


To emphasize that finality, he gives another metaphor for the passing of something sweet, for the passing of springtime and youth:  the nightingale that sang so beautifully, yet briefly, in the branches — where did it come from?  And where has it gone? Why does he lament that spring vanishes with the rose? Because until relatively recent times, the roses of the Middle East and of Europe bloomed in the spring, and then were gone. When they went, so did spring. Our modern “ever-blooming” roses are the result of the introduction of previously unknown kinds and of hybridization into Europe and America.

We see some of the techniques of hokku in this, though used in a far more obvious way.  We see the reflection of spring in the time of youth, and we find a very strong sense of transience, of the brevity of life as it passes. But hokku would never present these things in so obvious a manner.  Instead, hokku just shows us something happening in Nature, and in that happening, as in Issa’s hokku, we feel everything expressed about that time of year, that time of life.

And of course with spring having passed, this means we are now in the season of summer hokku.