In the previous posting I mentioned the “selflessness” of hokku — how the emphasis is generally (as it should be in hokku) on the experience, not on the writer. In hokku the writer does not draw attention to himself or herself. To do so is felt, by those who have absorbed hokku aesthetics, as too blatant, a failure of taste.

Here is an example — a winter verse by Etsujin:

The first snow;
After seeing it,
I washed my face.

The point of the verse is that the purity of the snow made the writer feel unclean, so he washed his face. R. H. Blyth quite correctly says of this verse, “This is one of those things that should not be said, like Chiyo and her borrowed water.”

For those of you who may not recall that verse, here it is (and notice that it feels a bit odd reading it out of season):

The morning glory
Has seized the well bucket;
Borrowing water.

The point of this verse is that the writer, seeing that a morning glory vine has twined around the handle of the well bucket, decides to borrow water from a neighbor instead of removing the vine from the bucket. People may say this shows both the writer’s tender heart and her aesthetic nature, and it may be true; but in revealing that, the writer takes us away from the morning glory to her “self.” It is not really about a well bucket seized by a morning glory, it is about the writer’s personal psychology in reaction to that, just as Etsujin’s verse is not about the first snow, it is about his personal psychology in reaction to it. Blyth points out that the problem here is that there is no “poetical” connection between the first part of the verse (the morning glory on the well-bucket) and the second (the writer’s reaction and her going to borrow water).

We can say the same of Etsujin’s verse. There is no “poetical connection” between seeing the first snow and going to wash one’s face. We jump from an experience of Nature to the writer’s personal psychology, just as we do in Chiyo-ni’s verse. This is a very subtle but also very important point.

In short, when a hokku moves from Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature to a writer’s personal psychology, we are leaving the proper realm of hokku.

To help you grasp this aesthetic point, here is a “selfless” winter verse by Bashō:

Waking suddenly;
Ice burst the water jug
In the night.

It would be better in English if rendered more simply and smoothly, for example:

Suddenly waking;
The water jug burst
In the icy night.

It is the writer’s personal experience, but because he does not move the focus from the event to his “poetically-unrelated” personal psychology, we not only become the experiencer of waking at the sudden bursting of a frozen water jug, but we also feel no bad taste in the mouth from “too much self” in the verse. The waking at the sudden noise happens naturally and has an immediate natural connection to the breaking of the pot, whereas Etsujin’s decision to go wash his face and Chiyo’s decision to leave the vine alone and go borrow water from a neighbor do not have that intimate, natural connection. We could say that any human would be likely to waken when startled by the crack of frozen water breaking a pot in the night, but not any human would decide to wash the face after seeing a first snowfall or would decide to go borrow water on finding one’s well bucket tangled with morning glory vine.

In modern haiku — a kind of mutated contemporary offshoot of the old hokku, created largely through a misperception of it in the 20th century — it is common for a writer to dwell on personal psychology. But that is modern haiku with its shotgun blast of widely varying standards, not hokku.  Hokku aesthetics are more subtle, more profound.

It is worth noting that the presence of the words “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine” are not always a guide to the too-obvious presence of “self” in hokku. It all depends on where the focus of the verse lies, and whether the reaction of the writer to an event is “poetically connected” to the event, or whether it takes us off into the writer’s personal psychology and so away from a “universal” (or nearly so) connection with the event.

This is all something you may not have given thought to previously, but it is very significant in the aesthetics of hokku. The concept may seem difficult at first, but if you read enough hokku, it becomes second nature to notice when there is too much “self,” too much personal psychology in a verse.

Here are the originals for those who like to see them:

Hatsuyuki wo mite kara kao wo arai-keri
First-snow wo seeing after face wo washed

Asagao ni tsurube torarete morai-mizu

Morning-glory by well-bucket seized borrow-water

Kame wareru yoru no kōri no nezame kana
Jug broken night’s ice ‘s waking kana



A winter verse by Hokushi:

Stars on the pond;
Again the patter
Of winter rain.

It is a chilly winter night. The rain has ceased, and one can see the silver stars reflected on the still dark surface of the pond. But suddenly there is the patter of rain again, and the stars on the water blur and fade as the rain increases.

Where is the writer in this? Of course rationally we know he had to be there to experience the event, but it is the great virtue of hokku that in such verses the writer disappears completely, replaced by the reader, who becomes the experiencer of the stars on the pond, the beginning patter of raindrops, the shaking and blurring of the pond stars.

Because of its lack of emphasis on “I” and “me,” hokku enables the reader to become the experience. One must make this adjustment to really enter into the spirit of hokku, to give up the obsession with “I saw,” “I heard,” “I felt.” That is why “selflessness” is an important part of hokku. Because of that, the writer must get out of the way, must disappear, and just let Nature speak.

In this de-emphasis on the writer, hokku is generally quite different than most Euro-American verse, which often focuses on “I,” “me,” and “my.” It does not mean hokku never uses these words, but they are used seldom, and when used are presented objectively, as one would discuss a leaf or a dog or the wind.

Here is the original transliterated and with a rather literal translation:

Ike no hoshi mata harahara to shigure kana
Pond ‘s stars again falls to winter-rain kana

You can see that the original does not use the sound word “patters,” but rather uses a word (harahara) that means to fall down in a sequence of drops, or of flakes in the case of snow.

We could translate:

Stars on the pond;
Again drops of rain
Begin to fall.


Stars on the pond;
Once more the rain
Begins to fall.

Why no “winter” in the second two options? Because each hokku in English comes with its seasonal classification, so from that we know that the rain is “winter” rain, without having to say so in the verse (though we can if we wish).

Remember that when sharing a verse, the seasonal classification goes with it, like this:


Stars on the pond;
Once more the rain
Begins to fall.

That enables a number of hokku to be easily classified by season when collecting or anthologizing them.

There are many possible variations in translating a hokku. My emphasis here, however, is on learning to write new hokku in English. So what we learn from this is that there are many, many different ways to arrange and present the elements of a hokku. When composing we can can move and change nouns and verbs and the order of things until we arrive at an arrangement that best conveys an experience. We should pay attention not only to meaning, but also to sound.



A repeat of one of my favorite old winter hokku, by Hashin — clear, direct, simple, and very effective:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

For those who may not have experienced a good snowstorm, this hokku is an excellent description. The boundaries of sky and ground disappear, and one feels as though standing in the midst of a vast, cold universe of falling snow. One even has the sensation of floating upward while standing still, due to the motion of the snow.

Often people try to use too many words in writing hokku, try to say too much when, as the saying goes, “less is more.” Remember that one of the characteristics of hokku is simplicity.

Here is the transliterated original and a rather literal translation:

Ten mo chi mo nashi ni yuki no furishikeri

Heaven too earth too are-not at snow’s falling-incessantly



I often mention how the verses of Masaoka Shiki, paradoxically considered the “founder” of modern haiku, were actually for the most part just the old hokku under a different name. They certainly bear little resemblance to much that is written as “modern haiku” today in English and European languages.

Modern haiku (except for some conservative writers) has largely abandoned the connection to Nature and the seasons so essential to hokku. But Shiki not only kept the old traditional “season words,” but also, for the most part (though he stretched the envelope now and then) kept the link with Nature. Modern haiku is definitely not Shiki’s notion of haiku.

Shiki’s “Nature” verses tend to be pleasant, though they also tend to be “illustrations,” not surprising, given that he was strongly influenced by the open-air sketches and paintings popular in European art of his day. One could say that in essence Shiki’s approach to hokku was to regard it as “sketches from Nature.” That is why I always say that his better verses remind us of the woodblock illustrations of such Japanese artists as Hasui and Yoshida.

Today’s verse demonstrates the difficulty sometimes encountered in translating Japanese verses into acceptable English. Here is Shiki’s verse literally translated:

Furuike no oshidori ni yuki furu yūbe kana

Old-pond ‘s mandarin-ducks on snow falls evening kana

As you can see, the meaning is quite simple and straightforward. It is:

On the mandarin ducks on the old pond, snow falls; evening.

It is easy to see why I say that many of Shiki’s verses are largely illustrations, if pleasant illustrations. One can easily imagine a woodblock print of mandarin ducks on a lake in falling snow.

Kana is just the “filler” word that Shiki used (one might say over-used) repeatedly in his verses.

The difficulty, of course, is that English, in this case, requires more space than the form of the hokku ordinarily permits. So if we want to say what Shiki is saying, but in English hokku, we end up either with something with an overlong line, like this:

Snow falling
On the old pond’s mandarin ducks;

or with an abbreviation like this:

Snow falls
On the ducks in the pond;

Of course we have left out that they are specifically “mandarin” ducks, and we have left out that the pond is “old,” so much has been lost, and it is hardly a satisfactory rendering.

R. H. Blyth (that clever fellow) used the content of Shiki’s verse, but presented it quite differently, thus managing to come up with a very acceptable alternative (I have changed his internal punctuation mark), but it still feels a bit overlong:

Evening snow falling;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On an ancient lake.

He does not say, as Shiki does, that the snow is falling on the ducks. He simply tells us that evening snow is falling, and then presents us with the scene of mandarin ducks on an ancient lake. The mind of the reader automatically connects this with the falling snow, so the reader sees the snow falling on the mandarin ducks on the ancient lake, as Shiki intended.

Blyth thought it better in this case to use “ancient lake” instead of “old pond,” even though Shiki employs the same furu-ike term used in Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku). He also specifies the number of mandarin ducks (a pair), which Shiki did not. However in Asian culture, mandarin ducks are believed to mate for life, and are naturally thought of in male-female pairs.

I would simplify Blyth’s rendering slightly, like this:

Evening snow;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On the old pond.

That leaves it up to the reader to see the snow falling, and it eliminates some of the awkwardness of length.

I discuss this today not so much to present the difficulties encountered at times in translating old verses as to demonstrate the usefulness of moving the elements of a hokku around, of re-arranging their order and of trying different possibilities, so that one might get the best “fit” when writing original hokku in English.




Many of you probably do not know that I wrote a book with a long-time friend of mine, the account of his years growing up in China. It begins before the Communist Revolution and continues into the terrible upheaval that was known euphemistically as the “Great Cultural Revolution.” He related it to me in many conversations, and I made a book of it.

If you are like me, you probably have little interest in politics but a lot of interest in human rights and freedom of thought and of speech. What would you do if your rights were ripped away? What if you could not speak freely, if you had to watch every word uttered to another person, and found you had to be wary of what you said even to many who were supposed to be friends? What if such a simple act as complaining about the heat of the sun on your neck while working was taken by those in authority as treasonous, and you were punished accordingly? What if your house was invaded, your belongings stolen, all with government approval, and you were forcibly shipped far into a remote, strange and barren countryside?

I found that my friend had personally experienced the living hell that China became in those days. He learned firsthand what it is like to exist under a totalitarian regime that permits no dissension, punishes at will, and practices the most blatant forms of mind control.

Nonetheless, in spite of the darkness of those years, in spite of the suffering and betrayal, on his long odyssey through China he encountered rare people now and then, individuals like sparks of light in the shadows, people who helped him to endure.

I hope that those of you who have devices on which to read digital books will read this account. Because I want as many to read it as possible, I made it available at a deliberately very low cost through such places as,,, etc. I think it will be quite different than anything you have previously encountered.

The book is called A Time of Ghosts. You will find it listed under both my friend’s name (Hok-Pang Tang) and mine (David Coomler) If you read it, you will know why I consider it to be a very significant and important story of one man adrift amid a sea of sorrows in Communist China, one story that has survived out of countless personal stories of that period that have not.

It took a long, long time and a great deal of work to write this book. I devoted so much time and labor to it because I felt the story of Hok-Pang Tang’s life to be not only of historical significance but also a remarkable and enthralling tale of human endurance, a story that should not be lost.

I hope you will read it. And after you read it, I would very much like to know your reaction. If you check the entry on, you will see that it has received excellent reader reviews.



TranslationCraft says:
November 23, 2014 at 10:39 pm
Hi David — I bought this book last year when you first announced it and I’m glad to see you reminding us about it again.

This is a stunning piece of work. I even cried in some places, imagining the sense of entrapment Hok-Pang felt in a surreal world where all values are turned inside out.

I am so grateful that you wrote down Hok-Pang’s life story for the world to read. I think it deserves the widest possible audience; perhaps there are other on-line magazines or blog that would be interested in reviewing it. His story should not be ignored, not just because of the light it sheds on a crucial period of history that was long shrouded from Western eyes, but also because of the human dimension of tragedy, endurance, despair, and heroic hope.

Thank you, David, for your generosity in laboring to put together “A Time of Ghosts” and making it available to all of us. I know you put enormous time and energy into preserving Hok-Pang’s story; please be assured that it was not in vain, either for his memory or our enlightenment.

Catherine Howard

P.S. Readers with ordinary computers or laptops can download the digital book as well; all the major book vendors now provide free software to do so, meaning those without Kindles or Nooks or iPads etc. can access it just as easily.


It is that time of the year again. Nederland (the Netherlands) is having its annual controversy over Zwarte Piet, the very black fellow with bright clothing, ruffed collar, brilliant red smile and golden earrings who follows St. Nicholas around and does his dirty work. Or rather who once did his dirty work, leaving coals in the stockings of misbehaving children on St. Nicholas day, or threatening to pop them in his sack and take them back to Spain or to Turkey, where St. Nicholas was originally from. Now he is more likely to dance happily around with numbers of Zwarte Piet clones, dispensing pepernoten (a kind of cookie) to children and being a jolly and charming figure. Zwarte Piet has grown soft.

I don’t want to get involved in the controversy over whether Zwarte Piet (“Black Piet”) is a racist figure. As with many things, it is in the eye of the beholder. He is racist to those who see him as such, and a beloved folk character to those who do not — de geliefde helper van Sinterklaas — “the beloved helper of St. Nicholas.” Perceptions differ, and the outcome is up to the Dutch. In one form or another, he will likely survive.

Zwarte Piet, however, is just one manifestation of the “helper” characters who appear in the calendar period from mid November into the Yuletide season, and they reveal how the celebrations of this time of year have picked up all kinds of accretions over the centuries.

St. Nicholas — through his more secular incarnation as Santa Claus — has become intimately associated with the Christmas celebration in the United States and a number of other countries. Originally, however, he had nothing to do with Christmas. He was a popular saint who was believed to multitask in helping everyone from sailors to merchants, and in Russia one could consider him THE most prominent religious figure after Jesus and Mary.

Oddly enough, almost all of his biography is fictional. He may well have been a 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now Turkey), but everything else about him is highly to obviously dubious. Nonetheless, as we have seen, he became a prominent saint in the days when the veneration of saints and prayers to them were an accepted practice.

In the Netherlands he made his annual appearance on December 6th, arriving from Spain (a detail that entered the story due to the previous Spanish — and Catholic — invasion of the Netherlands). In spite of the fact that the Dutch became largely Calvinist Protestant, the St. Nicholas celebration was retained, and on St. Nicholas Eve he visited houses to stand in judgment on which children had been good and which bad. The good were rewarded, and the bad might receive a coal instead of a gift, or be threatened with abduction by Zwarte Piet.

Go southeast however, into places like Austria and the Czech Republic, and the helper of St. Nicholas takes on a different guise. He is no longer a “moor” like Zwarte Piet; instead he is a large and frightening hairy, bestial figure with long, goat-like horns on his head, and a very long and red tongue; he is the terrifying Krampus, sometimes with one foot a hoof and the other like a clawed bear paw. He carries switches and chains, but sometimes also a basket with fruits for well-behaved children.

Here is an illustration of Krampus menacing an obviously worried child, from a 1900 Austrian postcard. The inscription reads “GREETINGS FROM THE KRAMPUS.”

The Krampus traditionally appears on the 5th of December, which you will recall is the old St. Nicholas Eve. In some regions large numbers of Krampuses wander the streets and byways, jingling with cowbells, striking at those they encounter with their switches. Some even carry wooden tubs like a grape-picker’s tub on their backs, just the right size to fill with a naughty child to be carried off. Their procession through the streets is called the Krampuslauf. Just what the Krampus looks like varies from place to place.

Now if all this sounds like the Perchten, the wild spirits of the mountains that come down into alpine villages in winter, clanging with cowbells and making their Perchtenlauf through the streets while threatening and punishing passers-by, it is because the Krampus is very akin to them. Both go back in spirit to pre-Christian times, and a more animistic way of thinking. The Perchten, however, come during the “Raw Nights,” between December 25th and January 6th.

In some regions the Krampus is called a “devil,” but of course devil figures are traditionally given animal (and pre-Christian) characteristics such as horns and hooves, and the Christians decided early on to relegate the gods of the non-Christians to demon/devil status.

In other places, the figure who comes is Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Ruprecht), a bearded man dressed in brown robe and hood and carrying a staff or long bundle of twigs, and sometimes belled like Krampus and the Perchten. His job is, like theirs, to scare and punish disobedient children, though like the modern Zwarte Piet, he has softened a bit.

In any case, in contemporary times Zwarte Piet and elsewhere the Krampus may show up as early as middle to late November.

It is interesting that the old animistic “scary” figures like the Krampus are making a comeback, and have begun appearing in places where they were not previously known, like the United States. Yesterday I was in the big local bookshop, which had already put out its holiday cards. Among them was a bright and obvious box of Krampus cards.



Bashō wrote two very similar winter hokku, using a different technique in each.

You will recall that in winter, hokku using opposites are often effective (as they are in summer) by presenting us with contrasting elements. Bashō does that in the first verse, which I will give in a very literal form:

Usually hateful,snowcrow
Even a crow…
The snowy morning.

That is rather cryptic to a Western reader, because we are unaccustomed to having to fill in the blanks. Many hokku, however, rely on implying something without stating it directly, and the reader is expected to make that intuitive leap. In some verses it it easy, but in others no one is quite sure what the writer intended, so demanding excessive intuitiveness of the reader can ruin a verse. And in any case, Westerners generally prefer “plain talk” and things stated clearly and simply. It is a cultural difference.

That is why R.H. Blyth, in translating this verse, added to the original, making it:

How beautiful
The usually hateful crow,
This morn of snow!

But as you see, the original does not say “how beautiful.” I think I would go with a more understated rendering:

Usually hateful,
Even the crow is appealing —
The snowy morning.

The setting is the snowy morning. The subject is, of course, the usually hateful crow, and the action is “appealing.” We are using “action” very loosely here. You will recall that in the standard setting/subject/action hokku, the action is something moving or changing. Here the change is that the crow has gone from being hateful to being appealing.

It is probably obvious to you that the reason this hokku is somewhat successful is that it contrasts the blackness of the crow with the whiteness of the snow, so we have a Yin (black) Yang (white) contrast here.

It is only a small step from that verse to one that does not use such a striking contrast, but is nonetheless based on the same notion — that a new snowfall makes ordinary things look different than usual:

We even
Look at horses —
The snowy morning.

Horses, in Bashō’s day, were very ordinary things, used for travel and for carrying loads. He is saying that in the context of snow, even the everyday horses take on an unexpected interest for us.

Bashō could have combined notions from the two verses like this, avoiding the “usually hateful” in the first example:

Even the crow
Becomes appealing;
The snowy morning.

As an English verse, I like that better than either of the originals. It not only eliminates the rather awkward and obvious “usually hateful,” but it also takes advantage of the “harmony of contrasts” that often makes for strong winter hokku.

If we want to avoid the repetition of the -ing sound that ends the second and third lines, we could make a more substantial change:

A snowy dawn;
Even the crow
Has become appealing.

In a verse as brief as hokku, every change gives a slightly different effect.

Did you notice that both of Bashō’s verses happen at morning? There is a reason for that. He wants to give the impression of a fresh snowfall, a new time when we see old things in a new way. And seeing ordinary things in a new way is, you will recall, one of the keys to writing effective hokku.

Here are the originals in transliteration and literal translation. I am putting this at the end so it can be easily skipped by those not interested in the linguistic details. It is important to remember that one need know nothing at all about Japanese to write hokku in English, but one must know the principles, techniques, and aesthetics of writing hokku in English:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usualy hateful crow even snow ‘s morning kana

Uma wo sae nagamuru yuki no ashita kana
Horse[s] wo even look snow ‘s morning kana

Keep in mind that Japanese does not specify number; so one can translate “crow” or “crows,” “horse” or “horses.” In most verses the singular is to be preferred, but now and then the plural. The principle in hokku is that one thing is generally felt to be more significant than many things, because it focuses the attention. One thing is often used when looking at an event closely, and more than one when looking from farther away.