With the unseasonably hot weather here, my thoughts turn naturally to cool water.

There is a verse by Shiki that is rather awkward in English if translated too literally, but it comes out well if we just take the meaning, like this:


At the bridge,
The horse instead
Goes through the river.

The whole point of the verse depends on knowing that it is a summer verse; given that, we know why the horse prefers to walk through the water instead of taking the bridge.

And we feel a similar sensation in a hokku by Buson, again taking the overall meaning rather than being too literal:


Cooling his chisel
In the clear water —
A stone mason.

The same water that cools horses and humans cools a chisel.  The heat of the chisel (made hot by friction in use) brings out the coolness of the water, just as did the horse who preferred the river to the bridge.

Stones at the bottom
Seem to be moving;
The clear water.

R. H. Blyth tells us that Sōseki should not have said “seem to be.”  That is because hokku goes with what is seen, without thinking it through intellectually.  When looked at through the water, the stones DO move. We need no lesson on light and refraction telling us that it is only an appearance.  The moving of the stones is the perceived reality; that they “really” do not move is the reasoned reality — “thinking.”

We could re-write it like this:


Clear water;
The stones at the bottom
Are moving.






Here we are on Midsummer’s Day, the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.

Photo: Anna Langova
Photo: Anna Langova

In the previous posting, I said that for a hokku to create a poetic-sensory experience in the mind, the writer has to create the right conditions.  When that is done, that experience will involuntarily arise in the reader’s mind.

Those right conditions are what make interesting hokku as opposed to boring hokku, meaning unsuccessful, failed hokku.

One does not need extraordinary subject matter for good hokku.  Most use very ordinary things.

As an example, here is a slight variation on a hokku by Genshi:


Looking to see
If the leaves are moving;
The heat!

That verse has great unity, meaning everything in it works together to create the experience in the mind.  We feel the intensity of the summer heat in the urge to find even the slightest breath of wind stirring the leaves on the trees.

Summer (like winter) is a season when contrasts become very important — heat and coolness.

Here is another slight variation, this time on a verse by Ganshitsu:


Evening heat;
Listening to the sound
Of distant thunder.

That too creates a sensation in the mind.  We feel the oppressive heat of the evening, and we hear it in the sound of the far-off thunder.

Remember two qualities that tend to make for good hokku:  strong sensation (meaning it creates a strong sensory experience in the reader) and seeing something from a different perspective.

Regarding the latter, we ordinarily think of leaves as green and cool and pleasant.  But in the following variation on a hokku by Kooku, we see them from a different perspective, meaning we see them presented in a way that gives US a different perspective:

All the leaves
Are covered in dust;
The heat!

It is a day so hot and windless that the dry dust that has settled on the leaves of the trees remains there, and we see the heat in it.

You can see heat in unmoving leaves and in dust; you can hear it in thunder.  That is a sign of a verse with good unity, and that unity helps to make good hokku.

As an example of a verse without unity, a verse that fails, look at this:


A robin
Walks across the lawn;
The hot day.

What is the relationship between the robin and the hot day?  None.  Two unrelated things, the day and the bird, have just been randomly put together.  There is nothing in it to make us feel a strong  poetic-sensory experience; there is nothing allowing us to see something from a different perspective; and there is nothing that unifies the robin and the day.  Keep those faults in mind, and it will help you to avoid writing bad hokku.





In the previous posting, I wrote that the poetic-aesthetic experience created in the mind on reading a hokku is involuntary; it just happens, because the hokku has created the right conditions for it to happen.

To better understand this, let’s look at a famous old waka by Saigyō:

Even in the mind of a mindless one
Sadness arises,
When the snipe flies up from the marsh
In the autumn dusk.

By “mindless one,” Saigyō means a spiritual person who has calmed the mind through meditation.  He thinks that even in such a person, given the experience of the autumn marsh, sadness must arise on seeing the bird rise up and fly away as day darkens.  Such an experience is involuntary.

It is the combination of the season, the time of day, and the rising and flying off of the bird that creates this particular aesthetic sensation in the mind.  Saigyō is saying that when the conditions are right, the experience will happen of itself in the mind — involuntarily.  That is the principle of hokku.

Writing a good hokku means creating the right conditions for that experience to sprout in the mind.

Incidentally, I mentioned some time ago that hokku has an “evil twin” called senryu.  While hokku is the verse of Nature and sensory experience, senryu, by contrast, is the verse of the quirks of human psychology and behavior.  Where hokku creates a poetic experience in the mind, senryu creates a bitingly humorous glimpse into the worldly human mind, something quite different.  We have already seen how Saigyō explained the rise of a poetic-aesthetic experience in his verse about the snipe.  Now here is how senryu explains Saigyō:

Saigyō sneezed,
And a verse about a snipe
Came out.

It means that Saigyō, sitting in the marsh at evening, suddenly sneezed, which frightened a snipe, causing it to fly up and away, inspiring Saigyō to write his waka.

As  you can see, unlike hokku, senryu tended to be witty and “low-class,” quite a different kind of verse.  Even though the outward form is the same, senryu is about human psychology, not Nature, and unlike hokku, it does not have a required seasonal context.






In the previous posting, I paraphrased R. H. Blyth’s definition of hokku: A non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

We can think of this as referring both to the initial experience of the writer and to the experience of the person reading the writer’s verse.

There is an old hokku by Bashō that will help in understanding:


So cool —
The wall against my feet;
A midday nap.

I have written before that for practical purposes and to avoid confusion, it is best not to think of this as poetry, but rather as the “seed of poetry.”  It is an experience put into simple words that when read, create a sensory-aesthetic experience in the mind of the reader, and THAT experience is the poetry.  It is not on the page, which only provides the seed that suddenly sprouts into life in the mind when read.  That is why I generally refer to hokku simply as “verse.”  If we call hokku poetry, people easily confuse it with all the ideas and characteristics they have picked up from Western poetry, and that baggage has contributed to the thorough misperception of hokku in the West and, incidentally to the rise of modern haiku as a verse form separate from traditional hokku.

When we say that hokku is a “non-intellectual sensory experience,” we mean that it is an experience of one or more of the five senses: seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing.  There is no thinking involved.  When you touch a wall with the soles of your feet on a hot day, the wall feels cool.  You do not have to think about it, or reason about it, or use it as a symbol for something, or make a metaphor or simile of it.  It is what it is, a sensory experience of coolness made pleasant by the fact that it is a hot day in summer.  So when I say there is “no thinking” in hokku, that is what I mean.  You don’t need to think to get the message.  You just experience it immediately through the senses, in this case the sense of touch.

And when I say that hokku is an experience “outside the conscious will” I mean that the experience of the coolness of the wall is not something you will into happening; it just happens.  You put your bare feet against the wall, and the wall feels cool.  The same happens when you read the verse.  You do not have to consciously will an experience to happen in your mind; it just happens when your read the simple words of the verse.

That is what Blyth means when he speaks of “Zen” in hokku.  He means precisely how this verse conveys its sensation, with

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

In hokku, nothing stands between the reader and the experience.  Look at this verse by Taigi:


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

It is a very warm and drowsy day.  Lying down for a noon-time nap, the person slowly moves the fan back and forth to create a hint of  cool wind; but the heat and the drowsiness finally win out, and as the person falls asleep,

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

In this verse we have the heat of summer and how it affects humans.  We are talking about one particular human, but in doing so, we are talking about humans in general.  That is why we so easily “get” the verse, why we feel the warmth and the drowsiness of the day in the hand that stops moving.  The verse expresses what summer is and what humans are, and what humans in summer are.  It shows us, as I always say hokku does,

Nature, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

You will recall that all hokku are set in a particular season.  This is a summer hokku, so that is the primary setting.  The secondary setting is “A midday nap.”  And in the primary and secondary settings combined, we see what happens:

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

Hokku is just that simple.  There is no need to make it seem complicated or mysterious or difficult.  It only requires that the writer be open to the inherent poetry of sensory experience and to our intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All that is required of the reader is to put aside “thinking” for the moment and to simply experience the verse as it “opens” in the mind.



Hiya-hiyato  kabe wo fumaete hirune kana
Cold-feels    wall  on  tread     midday-nap kana

Hirune shite   te no ugokiyamu uchiwa kana
Midday-nap doing   hand ‘s moving-not fan kana




R. H. Blyth, in a very convoluted paragraph tucked away in his little-read volume titled Senryu, gives an ultimately simple definition of the hokku aesthetic that I will put into easily-understandable words:

Hokku is a non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

He is talking about what happens when one reads a hokku.  We can take, for example, even this late verse by Shiki, who would have called it a haiku, but it is nonetheless just the old hokku:


Seen through the pine boughs —
Sailing ships.

There is nothing intellectual about it.  It is all an experience of the senses, an involuntary sensory experience created in the reader when it is read,  a reader who suddenly finds herself or himself looking through green pine boughs at sailing ships passing by on the blue water.

The first line is a basic sensory experience of coolness, felt on the skin.  Then comes a visual sensory experience of boughs and ships and water, and the combination of the coolness with the visual sensation makes the whole one simultaneous,  non-rational (by which I mean immediate and not thought out) experience.

In the same volume, Blyth also tells us what he means by “Zen” in hokku.  I don’t even like to use the term “Zen” today, because it has been so misunderstood, misinterpreted, and sullied by use and over-use.  So we can just use the synonym-phrase Blyth gives us:

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

If you leave all the other mind baggage aside, and focus just on what is on this page, you will make a great step forward in understanding what hokku is all about.

Shiki also wrote:


With the lamp gone out,
The sound of water.

One does not need to think about it.  One just needs to experience it.  Moving from “thinking” poetry, which a lot of Western poetry is, to “no-thinking” verse, which is hokku, will give you a completely different way of looking at verse.



Suzushisa ya   matsu no hagoshi no    hokake bune
Coolness ya    pine    ‘s   needles-seen-through ‘s sailing ship(s)

Suzushisa ya    andon kiete   mizu no oto
Coolness ya      lamp   gone-out water ‘s sound




Today we will return to Alfred Edward Housman’s anthology A Shropshire Lad, though we will skip ahead for now to poem #32, which is titled


From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

In stanza one, the speaker tells us that the elements that compose him, body and mind, came together from all directions and were “knit together” into an individual human life.  Though Housman is speaking poetically, we can say that scientifically there is much to what he says.  We are all “knit together” from food that comes from the earth, grown in various places, from water, from the air we breath, from sunlight, and from all the elements that compose our bodies and those of our ancestors, which scientists tell us, are ultimately made of the dust of exploding stars.

The speaker says all that makes him comes “from far, from eve and morning,” meaning from East and West, from where the sun sets and where the sun rises, from light and from shadow.  It all somehow “blew together” into an identity, a sense of self.  And so, seemingly out of nothing, “Here am I.”

When he speaks of “yon twelve-winded sky,” we see Housman’s classical background.  The modern  “compass rose” that backs a compass needle shows eight, sixteen, or thirty-two points or directions.  But Housman is using the old “wind” directions of the classical Greek and Roman world, which has twelve winds of different directions blowing in the sky, as in this illustration.  The wind names in blue are Greek, in red Latin.  Houseman knew both languages.

Now that the elements have “blown together” into an individual, that individual speaks to another:

Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

“I am only  pausing here for a short time,” he says,” before I dissolve and return to the elements;  so connect with me quickly — take my hand and tell me what you think and feel.”  He likens the brief span of human life to the taking of a breath.  That is in harmony with his mention of the twelve winds, and of the materials of his life being “blown hither” (blown here); and the breath  is also a very ancient symbol of life and the spirit.  So he is saying, “Quick, tell me your hopes and fears while we have this brief moment of life together, do not miss the opportunity, because soon I will be gone again.”

He tells his temporary companion,

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

He is saying, “If you open yourself to me, I will respond; tell me what you need, how I can help you in this life.  But be quick about it, because soon it will all be over and the ingredients that make up my being will disperse, and I will be gone.”

It is not difficult to see that the point of this simple but well-written poem is that life is very short, and we have only a brief opportunity in which to relate to  and help another being, and then we will be gone again.   Just as we are blown together from all directions of the winds, so we will fall apart again and disperse back into the universe.  It reminds me of  a line from the song “Pastures of Plenty”:

I come with the dust, and I’m gone with the wind.”

But we can go farther back to Fitzgerald’s rendition of a quatrain from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
Nor Whence, like Water, willy-nilly flowing; 
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.



Masaoka Shiki wrote a summer verse that, like many hokku, creates both an image and a mood in the mind of the reader:

A cicada cries
At the gate of the empty house;emptyhouse
The evening sun.

The point of this verse lies in the combination of the monotonous, ongoing drone of the unseen cicada with the feeling of emptiness and absence and the passage of time given by the vacant residence.  Even though it is a summer verse, it gives us a feeling akin to that of autumn.

I have mentioned before that the absence of things can be just as significant, or even more significant in some cases, than their presence.  Hokku often make use of this.


The original transliterated:

Aki-ie no    mon ni semi naku    yū-bi kana

Vacant-house ‘s    gate at cicada cries    evening sun kana