Some old Japanese hokku do not work very well in English because we are not familiar with all of the elements, for example in this autumn hokku by Sesshi:

Oriori ya            amado ni     sawaru     hagi no koe

Occasionally ya shutters at touching  bush-clover ‘s voice

Here is a rather loose translation, which English requires in this case:

Now and then,
The sound of the bush clover
Rubbing on the shutters.

Because this is an autumn hokku, we should intuit, as students of hokku, that it is the autumn wind causing the bush clover to rub against the shutters, making a scratching, rasping noise.  But the problem for most of us in the West is that we have never actually seen or experienced bush clover, which detracts somewhat from the effect.

That problem, however, can be turned to an advantage.  As students, this gives us a good opportunity to make some changes in order to practice writing new hokku.  Begin by asking yourself what would be likely to rub against the shutters where you live, and what would be in keeping with autumn?

We could just be general and a little vague, for example,

Now and then,
The sound of branches
Rubbing on the shutters.

Or we could be more descriptive:

Now and then,
Bare branches scratching
On the shutters.

Or we could be more definite:

Autumn gusts;
The sound of pine needles 
Brushing the shutters.

There are many possible variations involving, in some way, Autumn, the wind, shutters, and the sound of something against the shutters.  We could even go farther afield, being more inventive:

A shutter slams
On the abandoned house;
The autumn wind.


The sound of wind
Through tattered curtains;
The abandoned house.

As you can see, using an old hokku as a model for practice in writing new verses can lead us off in many directions.  That is how we use models in writing, as jumping-off points for many different possible variations and new hokku.

In the original verse, the shutters are likely more what we would think of as storm doors that go over the sliding doors on a Japanese house.  In the West, however, they would be the shutters that close over windows to protect them from storm and wind.

When using old hokku as models, always bring the elements in them to where you are, to your own biosphere and local cultural background.

Again, do not forget that in writing hokku in English, you should always label the finished verse by season, like this:


Now and then,
The scratch of bare branches
On the shutters.



It may seem odd that we can use some verses of Masaoka Shiki to demonstrate how to write hokku, given that Shiki provided the impetus for what became the erratic “haiku” movement, but as I have said many times, much of what Shiki wrote was just hokku under a different name.  Shiki’s verses were in general quite different from all that people now know as modern haiku in English.

Here is one such verse, which is an autumn hokku.  Usually I use my own translations, but in this case one can hardly better the translation by R. H. Blyth:

A pear

Peeling the pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife. 

Shiki was likely seeing an Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia), one of those yellowish round ones that have both a shape similar to an apple and something of its crispness.  But the verse is even better in English, because we picture one of the more soft and juicy Western pears (Pyrus communis), which are what we traditionally think of as “pear-shaped.”

But the point I want to make today is what students of hokku can learn from this verse, which is in every respect not only a hokku but also quite a good one.

First, we can see that it has the necessary two parts of a hokku, one long, one short, separated in Japanese by a cutting word and in English by its functional equivalent, a punctuation mark.

1.  Peeling a pear,

2.  Sweet drops trickle down the knife.

Pyrus pyrifolia
Pyrus pyrifolia

Of course these are fitted into the standard English-language three-line hokku form.

The first part of the hokku functions as the setting.  What is a setting in hokku?  It is the overall environment or circumstance or context in which something takes place.  In this verse that context — that situation — is “Peeling a pear.”

Next, this verse is quite typical of the most common hokku structure in that it has both a subject and an action, placed within the context of the setting.

The subject is “Sweet drops.”

The action (something moving or changing) is “…trickle down the knife.”

So that is it.  An absolutely normal but quite good hokku written by the fellow people think of (somewhat confusedly) as the founder of the modern haiku movement, in spite of the fact that most of Shiki’s verses have little or nothing in common with much that is written as “modern haiku” in English and other European languages today.

The other respect in which this verse is a good model for hokku is that it simply shows us an event related to Nature (the pear and the sweet drops) and humans as a part of Nature (the peeling action and the knife).  No commentary or explanation is added, and there is no symbolism or metaphor.  And it has very good sensation.  Remember that sensation in hokku is an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.

Think of it as seeing a closeup of the event in a clear mirror.  It reflects exactly what is happening:

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

Now imagine that the clear mirror is really the mind of the hokku writer.  Just like a real mirror reflecting what is there, the writer presents us with just what is happening, without adding frills or comments, and does so in very simple, easy-to-understand, everyday language.  That is what a writer of hokku does.  He or she is a mirror reflecting events happening in the context of the seasons.

Blyth tells us that this verse is also an example of what he feels to be the “real function of poetry, — to hold the mirror up to nature in such a way that we perceive its workings.

That is very different from what we are accustomed to in Western poetry, which often has quite a different purpose.  But this verse does in fact show us, as Blyth says, “the nature of a pear, the nature of a knife, the relation between the two….

All these are reasons why this verse makes a very good model for students of hokku — something that cannot be said of all of Shiki’s verses.

It is very important to keep in mind that hokku are written in one of the four seasons, and that the season is the underlying subject of the verse, which as a whole thereby expresses the character of that season.  So when you write hokku in English or other non-Japanese languages, you should always mark them with the season in which they are written, like this:


Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.






Shiki, who set the “haiku” off on its increasingly erratic course near the beginning of the 20th century, wrote a great many verses  that are actually just hokku under a different name.  They still have a focus on Nature and are set within a particular season.  Some are good, some mediocre.  But Shiki also wrote verses that can show us what to avoid in hokku.

The one I discuss today is actually rather atypical of Shiki’s style, which on the whole favored realism, even if at times unattractive and boring realism.  But it is useful for showing the distinction between what hokku should not be and what hokku should be.

To make it brief, hokku should not be about fantasy or imagination.  Even when verses are not based on a single actual experience, they should be based on past actual experiences of Nature and the place of humans within Nature.

This autumn verse by Shiki, however, is bare fantasy:

Rice sparrows;
Shot by the scarecrow,
They fall into the sea.

To understand it, you must know that rice sparrows flock to the rice fields at harvest time to eat.  Old Japanese scarecrows were often given fake bows and arrows in an attempt to frighten the birds away from the grain.  But Shiki imagines that sparrows flying past the scarecrow and down over a bluff toward the sea have been shot by the scarecrow and are falling into the sea.

Well yes — you are right.  It is a rather ridiculous verse, but again, it shows us what not to do in hokku.

Blyth gives a good example by Shôha of the hokku approach to a similar subject.  Instead of indulging in flights of fantasy, the writer of hokku becomes like a reflecting mirror.  Here is the verse in my translation:

In the morning wind,
Its bow has turned the other way;
The scarecrow.

The wind has shifted the position of the scarecrow on his support, so now he is aiming his bow in a different direction.

It is easy to see that the unrealistic imagination of the writer has not intruded in that hokku, and that is the approach we want in hokku, which should not be “fantasy” verse.  It should take us into Nature, rather than into the mind and imagination of the writer.



An autumn hokku by Issa:

English: harvest moon
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Standing unaffected
Beneath a Harvest Moon —
The scarecrow.

Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet that nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.  We admire and ooh! and ah! over the large, bright Harvest Moon, but the scarecrow just stands there unconcerned.  Full moon or no moon, it is all one to him because he does not think.  When it is warm he warms, when it is cold he cools; he is equal to all circumstances because he does not have a mind that prefers one thing and dislikes another.

Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us.

To see ourselves as others see us would indeed be helpful.  But it would also be useful to know how other people see the world in general.  We do not all see the same world, nor are we even consistent as to how we see the world from day to day.  When we are sad the world looks sad, when we are happy the world looks happy.

As the Dao De Jing says, without ugliness, how could we know beauty?  Without sorrow, how could we know happiness?

But none of this affects the scarecrow, who in his way is like is said of God, that he rains on the just and unjust alike.  To the scarecrow it is all one whether there is a beautiful Harvest Moon or an ink-black night.  And the reason he is in this hokku is because humans, as with dolls, cannot help the feeling that because of the human-like form of scarecrows, there must be some undefined thing about them that is in some way “human.”  That is why they move us more than do mere piles of sticks or of old clothing.

The old Ch’an Buddhist treatise Xin Xin Ming says,

To attain the Great Way is not difficult;
Just beware of liking and not liking.
When there is nothing you love or detest
Then everything becomes bright and clear.

The Harvest Moon, by the way, is the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox, which this year has already come and gone.  Now the days are growing ever shorter and the nights longer as the Yang of summer has given way to the increasing Yin of Autumn.









Today I would like to talk about morning glory hokku.

Why?  Because I happened to pass a blooming morning glory vine this morning, as you can see from the above photo.  Also, in old Japanese hokku, the morning glory was generally considered an autumn flower.  They called it asagao, “morning face,” — asa = morning, gao = face.

The morning glory is particularly appropriate for autumn hokku because it is so ephemeral, so transient, with blossoms that appear in the morning and are gone by afternoon.  That made a deep impression on the old hokku writers, because transience — the impermanence of things, was one of the main underlying aesthetic principles of old hokku, as it is of modern hokku.  That came from watching Nature and life, and it came also from the fundamental principal of Buddhism that all things change and eventually pass away, and we cannot really keep anything, least of all our own lives.

Moritake, an early writer of hokku, wrote this:

Asagai ni                     kyō wa miyuran        waga yo kana
Morning-glory as     today wa may seem   my    life  kana

Like the morning glory
It may seem today —
My life.

It is not very good as a hokku, but it makes an interesting point about the brevity of life.

Issa wrote:

Asagao no            hana de           fuitaru iori kana
Morning glory’s flowers by       covered  hut kana

Covered over
By morning glory flowers —
The hermitage.

That one always reminds me of my college years, when I too lived in a tiny cottage, its roof covered with blooming blue morning glories.

Taigi wrote:

Chirizuka ni   asagao sakinu                 kure no aki
Dust-heap on  morning glory blooms  end ‘s autumn

Out of the trash heap
A morning glory has bloomed;
Autumn’s end.

Autumn, you will recall, is the season when we particularly feel the transience of life, because it is the time of year when things begin to wither and return to the root.  It corresponds, in human life, to the early to mid “senior” years, and in the day it corresponds to evening.  So the morning glory, enjoyed in the dawn but gone by evening, is very appropriate for early autumn hokku where I live.



To the large numbers of  Westerners who began to read old hokku (usually misnamed “haiku”) in one or another English translation in the middle of the 20th century, it all looked so simple and quick.  All one had to do was to write a fast little poem in three lines, most likely in 17 syllables.  Of course that was a complete misunderstanding of the hokku that led to the creation of modern haiku, which tended to jettison completely any seasonal connection.

Modern hokku, however, saw the essential connection between hokku and the seasons in the old tradition, and kept it by simplifying it to remove the needless complexity and frequent artificiality of the overgrown “season word” system.

Ryôta (1718-1787) wrote this early autumn hokku:

Ie-ie ni   asagao sakeru   hazuki kana
house-house at morning-glory blooms leaf-month kana

At every house
A morning glory blooms;
The month of leaves.

The “month of leaves” was August.

There is a very similar verse by Buson (1716-1783)

Mura hyak-ko kiku naki kado mo mienu kana
Village hundred-houses chrysanthemum is-not gate also not-seen kana

A hundred-house village;
Not a gate to be seen
Without chrysanthemums.

The point of each verse is the popularity, in village life, of flowers that express and manifest the season.

In old hokku, both asagao (morning glory) and kiku (chrysanthemum) were words that indicated the season of autumn when used within a verse.  Today, of course, we follow the simplified hokku method of just categorizing each verse by season.  Otherwise we would be stuck, as modern Japanese “haiku” writers are (at least those who maintain a seasonal connection — most American haiku writers do not), with a list of some five thousand or more season words to deal with, not to mention seasonal attributions often far more artificial than the more natural connection of morning glories and chrysanthemums with autumn.

The result is that Ryôta’s hokku, if written today as a modern hokku, would appear like this:

Morning glory flower, species Ipomoea nil


At every house
A morning glory blooms;

The month of leaves.

That way, no one writing hokku now needs to memorize long lists of season words or to go through the needless complexities that such a system creates for both reader and writer.

Of course, being Westerners, we would no longer say “month of leaves.”  Instead, we might come up with something like this:


At every house
A morning glory blooms;
Autumn begins.






Many people think of Masaoka Shiki as a writer of haiku, but much of what Shiki wrote was simply hokku under a different and now very misleading name.

Because they were generally still hokku in form and content, Shiki’s verses were not at all like much of the modern haiku one finds on the Internet.  They even retained the season words that were essential to traditional Japanese hokku.

Shiki, however, was very influenced by the concept of Western “open air” painting — making a quick sketch out in the fields or forests  — that had become so popular in the Europe and America in the 19th century.  That accounts for why Shiki’s verses often are like illustrations, like woodcut scenes from Nature and life in general.

Shiki was very good at writing such “block print” verses, which are pleasant in their own way, even though they may lack the depth of earlier hokku.

Here is one of my favorite autumn verses by Shiki:

Aki ie no              to ni neru inu ga              yanagi chiru
Empty house ‘s   door at sleeping dog ga   willows fall/scatter

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

Autumn is the time when the active energy — Yang — of life diminishes.  It is the time when the great dying in Nature begins, when the energy of life begins returning to the root in preparation for winter.

If we look at Shiki’s verse, that decline of active energy is present in its three elements:

1.  In the sleeping (inactive) dog;
2.  In the emptiness of the house;
3.  In the falling of the willow leaves.

So we can see that this verse is very much in keeping with the character of autumn.  But keep in mind that none of these things are symbols or metaphors.  We just feel these connections because of the layers of associations such things have for us.

There is a kind of overall loneliness in the verse, which again is in harmony with autumn.  Where have the people gone who once lived in the house?  Was the sleeping dog abandoned when they left, or is he a wandering stray who has found a place to sleep where no one will chase him away?  We are not told what the past was, which makes us just focus on what is before us, yet leaving us with the underlying feeling of something left unspoken.

In Nature, autumn is the waning of the year;
In human life, autumn is our years of growing old after middle age.
In the daily cycle, autumn is the late afternoon and early evening.

I always see this verse of Shiki as happening n the golden light of a late autumn afternoon, with everything quiet and drowsy, and the yellow willow leaves slowly scattering through the air.  This is the peaceful pause before the cold and hardness of winter.

But in learning hokku we do not let sleeping dogs lie.  Instead we take an old hokku and we play with it, trying different options and possibilities and substitutions.  That is a very good way to learn how to write new hokku.

For example, we could make this change:

A cat asleep
On the porch of the empty house;
Autumn rain.


A broken doll
In the window of the empty house;
The autumn evening.

There are many, many possibilities, and of course much of what we come up with in this practice exercise may not be as good as the original model, but that does not matter.  The point is that we are learning how to form hokku, and also learning to see what is effective and what is not.  Now and then we may hit upon something that works very well.  And of course, very importantly, we are seeing how changing the elements in a hokku also changes the relationship among them, and how by doing so we alter the whole effect of the verse.

Shiki wrote another autumn “empty house” verse that is not nearly as good:

Asagao no chi wo haiwataru   aki ya kana
Morning-glory ‘s earth wo rambling  empty house kana

A morning glory
Rambling over the ground;
The empty house.

One reason this verse is less interesting is that it tells us everything.  What you see is what you get.  There is no sense of anything deeper, of anything left unspoken.

In the “sleeping dog” verse, by contrast, we feel that there is much we are not told.  Where did the dog come from?  What will become of him?  And because of the dog, we wonder what happened to the people who lived there that caused them to abandon the house.  Not knowing all of that gives the verse a kind of latent energy.  But we do not feel nearly so invested in the “morning glory” verse.  It is just an untended garden plant wandering across the unkempt ground around a vacant house in autumn.  In that sense, it is far more “just a picture” than the “sleeping dog” verse.  There is no significant latent energy in it.

That missing sense of unspoken depth makes all the difference between a hokku that is just “flat” and a hokku that holds our interest.  Shiki often fell into the kind of verse that is just a lifeless photograph, but in the “sleeping dog” verse, he succeeded in writing something that affects us more deeply.  That underlying feeling of something left unsaid, combined with the overall harmony and unity of the verse, helps to express quite well the character of autumn.




Woman at left is painter Suzanne Valadon

The woman Sogetsu-ni wrote:


After the dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

This is a good example of two things.  First, it shows us the very old hokku technique of using two things united by a third.  The two things here are the wind in the pines and the cries of insects, and the uniting third element is “after the dance.”

Second, it shows us is how a hokku can take on quite a different meaning in the West than it originally had.  When we read this hokku, we perhaps picture an outdoor dance in the open air, with strings of lights and lots of couples having a good time, with perhaps a hint of young romance.  There is a sense of nostalgia that the dance has ended, that people have dispersed, and after all that rhythmic human sound and activity, one is left with the vastness of the evening, the sound of wind through the pines, and here and there the cries of crickets.

Originally, however, what is translated here as “the dance” was Bon Odori, which refers to an annual folk form of circle dance — not in couples — that was part of the celebration to welcome back the spirits of the dead.  We would think of it as rhythmic walking in a circle with hands thrown alternately up to one side and down to the other in time to the music.

Bon odori ato wa       matsu-kaze mushi no koe
Bon Dance after wa    pine-wind   insect  ‘s   voice

So literally, the hokku is:

After the Bon Dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

Given its connection with the dead and the fact that this dance began very early in autumn by the old hokku calendar (which placed the beginning of autumn in August), we can think of it as a ceremony recognizing that the coming of autumn meant a waning of the Yang energies of life and the coming of the Yin energies of the dying of the year.  The living are Yang; the dead are Yin.  So the dance is one welcoming the other.

Bon Odori Dancers (August 2004 at Imazu Primar...

That is something no one would even imagine by reading the verse in English, in the West, and without its original cultural background.

That raises the whole matter of the reading of old hokku by Westerners who generally have no notion of their intended cultural context.  Sometimes such old hokku can take on a meaning quite different from that originally intended.

If one is studying old hokku and its original significance in the cultural and literary traditions of Japan, knowing the actual context is very important.  But if, on the other hand, one is looking at what an old hokku can mean to Westerners today, in a European, Australian, New Zealand, or American cultural context, then we must just take the hokku as it stands, without its old cultural context, and see what it means to us now.  Many old hokku will have no meaning at all, because they are too closely linked to the old Japanese culture.  But many will take on quite a different context when read in the West, and that is as it should be, because we want to write new hokku in a Western cultural context.

There are two approaches to hokku, then.  One is to see it only in its old Japanese context.  The other is to take it, read it, and see what it means to us in a Western context, without necessarily any reference to what it meant originally.  In doing so, we may feel free to modify the text to allow it to become Western instead of Japanese.  We could even make it:

After the barn dance,
The wind in the pines —
The crickets chirping.

Of course a Bon dance and a barn dance are two completely different things, but again, we are using the original to learn to write hokku in English, not trying to translate literally now.

My view of the matter is that if old hokku are to be read and appreciated only in their original cultural context, then they become literary museum pieces, interesting for what they are (or rather, were), but of little use to people writing verse today.  But if, on the other hand, they are used, sometimes with appropriate modifications, as examples to show us how to write new hokku today, in the English language and in a Western cultural context, then they still have a purpose in the world beyond simply being curious antique literary artifacts.

That has always been my approach to hokku — that old hokku can provide us with good models for writing new hokku, if we use them for learning rather than regarding them merely as interesting relics of the past.  By doing so, we keep the old hokku tradition alive, along with its very important connection to Nature and the seasons, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.