The hokku of Issa is a very mixed bag.  Often it is too emotional, or says too much.  There is, for example, this verse:

Snow sparsely falling;
A splendid
Moonlit night.

The problem here — aside from the rather awkward arrangement (it is not quite so awkward in Japanese) — is the word “splendid,” which brings up the old writing adage, “show, don’t say.”  That means we should just present the experience and let the reader experience it without telling him or her that it is “beautiful” or “splendid.”

There are many ways of re-writing this hokku to eliminate that problem, and this is only one:


Lightly, sparsely,
Snowflakes drift down;
The moonlit night.

What we want to convey is the cold night, with the moon shining on the snow, and a few flakes gently falling now and then, here and there.  The original Japanese just says yuki, meaning snow, is lightly falling (chirari chirari), but we want to emphasize the fewness of the random flakes that fall, because the snow has let up and the moon is shining between scattered clouds overhead.  It would not be shining if the snowfall were thicker and more regular.

The overall feeling is rather similar to the lines from Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below….



The original:

Yuki chirari chirari migoto na tsukiyo kana
Snow lightly-lightly-falls  splendid    moon-night kana





In only a few days, it will be Great Yule, the Winter Solstice.  This is the ancient holiday celebrating the rebirth of the sun when the winter night is longest.  It is a time of dark and cold, a time when light and warmth and cheer are eagerly appreciated.

The name Yule is very old English, but it is also the ancient name still used in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, though it has been generally shifted to refer to the later innovation, Christmas, which co-opted Yule and its popularity.  Nonetheless, in its connection with evergreens and mistletoe, we still see its pre-Christian origins.  In Scandinavia, Yule is spelled Jul, with the “J” pronounced as “Y.”

In the Scandinavian countries, Yule is still associated with the the creature called Nisse in Norway and Denmark, and Tomte in Sweden.  The Nisse is a kind of domestic spirit associated with a particular house and family, rather like the Russian Domovoi.  Nisser (the plural) are small, only about three feet or less in height, usually with a long beard and an often bright-red cap.  They are kind when well-treated and fed, but demand respect and good keeping of the house and grounds.  Another figure often associated with Yule in Scandinavia is the Julebukk, the Yule Goat.  We see both Nisser and a Julebukk on this old Yule Card (used for Christmas).  The Greeting on it is God Jul — “Good Yule.”

In Wales, the greeting at this time is Nadolig Llawen, meaning roughly “Merry Birth.”  Welsh Nadolig and Italian Natale are related words both derived from the word for birth in Latin.  In old Rome, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” was the Winter Solstice, so the “birth” in early times was not that of Jesus, but of the sun at Midwinter.

Photo: Matti Kovanen
Photo: Matti Kovanen

So for the Midwinter Solstice, one can still say “Good Yule” or “Glad Yule” or “Happy Birth” and mean something older and more Nature-oriented than the Christmas celebration.

We can see from the following illustration why the focus from ancient times was on the sun at Midwinter.  From the Summer Solstice — Midsummer — the highest point in the sun’s arc across the sky, the arc gradually gets lower and lower, and as it does so the places of its rising and setting also move farther southward.  Finally, at the Winter Solstice, the sun stops descending, and seems to “stand still” in its arc for a few days, that is, it gets no lower.  At this lowest point in its arc, the “old” sun seemed to the ancients to be reborn, once again to rise in its arc across the sky until reaching its highest point on Midsummer’s Day.

Though as seasonal terms “spring” perhaps originated in the “springing” of new plants from the ground, and “fall” perhaps from the falling of leaves,   If you think about it, the gradual elevation of the arc of the sun from Yule is its rising, its “spring” upward toward Midsummer.  That is followed by the sun’s “fall,” its decline in the sky from Midsummer’s Day back to its lowest point at the Winter Solstice.

solstice arc

As mentioned earlier, Yule was rather “taken over” by the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus — Christmas — though the latter came rather late.   In fact it seems to have begun just about the time Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and adopted as the State religion. So we can say that according to available evidence, the celebration of Christmas seems to have begun during or shortly after the life of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century c.e.

It also appears that the reason the date for the celebration of Christmas was placed on December 25th is that it was already the very popular non-Christian celebration, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.  That occurred on the Winter Solstice, which in those days was intended to be on December 25th. So that gives us our marker. Originally, Christmas was celebrated on (or very close to) the Winter Solstice in the Roman Empire, taking over the already existing non-Christian festival.

In those days there was no formal split between the Greek Eastern branch of the Christian Church and the Latin western branch. Both celebrated Christmas on the same day, December 25th. And even after the Great Schism that divided the two branches in 1054, both churches, Eastern Greek and Western Latin, continued to celebrate the Nativity on December 25th. That is because both still used the old Roman Julian Calendar.

There was, however, a serious flaw in the Julian Calendar. Every year it would inaccurately be off by another eleven minutes. That did not matter much at the beginning of its use, but after the passage of 134 years, all those accumulations of 11-minute error added up to the Julian Calendar being a full day off. Every 134 years, it was off by yet another day. So because of this error, the celebration of Christmas gradually moved farther and farther from the Winter Solstice.

in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered Roman Catholics to use a new and more accurate calendar, generally called the Gregorian Calendar. This was after the Protestant Reformation, so for a while the Gregorian Calendar was only used by Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox continued to use the more inaccurate Julian Calendar.

The Gregorian Calendar, unlike the Julian, more closely reflected the natural cycles of the solar year, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. It was not perfect, but compared to the 11 minute inaccuracy per year of the Julian Calendar, the Gregorian inaccuracy was only about 30 seconds per year.

Over time the use of the Gregorian Calendar began to spread even into predominantly Protestant countries.

England adopted the Gregorian Calendar only in 1752. That was some 24 years before America declared its independence, so that meant America went on the Gregorian Calendar as well and has remained on it ever since.

Now, how does all this  talk of calendars relate to the gap of a few days in modern times between the Winter Solstice and the date of Christmas, December 25th?

By the year 1900 the Julian Calendar still used by the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia had become off by 13 days through the inherent flaw in that calendar system. That meant that when the Western churches were celebrating Christmas on December 25th, The Russian Orthodox church was celebrating it on what by the modern Gregorian Calendar would be January 7th. Now (and until March of 2100) the Russian Orthodox date of Christmas is thus 13 days behind, meaning 13 days after, the date on which Christmas is celebrated in Europe and America.

Which is the more accurate date? Well, given that the marker originally was the Winter Solstice, both are off, because as we have seen, Christmas, in Roman times, was intended to be on the Winter Solstice. Today by the Gregorian Calendar, the Winter Solstice actually happens about four days before Christmas. But the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th is much farther off the mark, being thirteen days after the “Western” December 25th date, and even more beyond by the actual Winter Solstice. That is because Russian Orthodoxy still uses the Julian Calendar for the date of Christmas and other fixed festivals.

What all this means is that even though the Christian celebration of Christmas took over the celebration of the Winter Solstice, and even appropriated the ancient name “Yule,” nonetheless the date of Christmas and the Winter Solstice have not coincided for a long, long time.

All of this talk about calendars and Christmas can seem a bit confusing.  But it does not really matter, if you happen to be one of those who, like me, have no interest in religious dogma of whatever kind, and who prefer to celebrate Yule as the ancient and present holiday of the Winter Solstice — a natural holiday — a Nature holiday.  And what is behind celebrating the Winter Solstice is the “rebirth” of the sun in Midwinter, the return of light and warmth to the world after the “fall” of the sun to the lowest point in its arc — the time when it pauses in its decline before once more beginning its “spring” upward in its arc across the sky.  And for that we have the very old accompaniments of evergreens and mistletoe and lights and warmth and good food.

Glad Yule!




Today a reader (Christine from Tree Top Haiku) sent me a verse, and kindly gave me permission to use it in explaining the difference between English-language hokku and “haiku.”

There is so much variation in modern haiku that one generally has to use a particular example to show how it differs from hokku. So Christine’s original is only one example out of a very variable and wide umbrella category, but nonetheless it should prove useful to readers for some general “rules of thumb.”

Here is the original verse:

cat-tails shiver
in the frozen slough
collect drifting snow

The basic subject is good — cattails in a frozen slough with snow. Like hokku, it has Nature as its subject and it is obviously a seasonal verse, which in hokku we would classify as winter.

There are two aspects to hokku — the form and the content. Unlike haiku, in hokku each line begins with a capital letter, and the whole verse ends with a punctuation mark. But there is also the very important punctuation mark that separates the two parts of a hokku — the longer and the shorter.

If we look again at the original, we can see that it has no such clear separation, in fact it does not have two distinct parts as does hokku:

cat-tails shiver
in the frozen slough
collect drifting snow

There is also a content problem. The word “shiver” can give the impression that the cattails behave like humans and “shiver” in the cold. In hokku we try to avoid words that make things like cattails appear to behave like humans, dogs, etc. It is also not quite clear what is meant by “collect” drifting snow. It appears to refer to the cattails, but just how they “collect” snow is vague. Does it gather on the tops? Does it gather at the base? Or both?

In hokku it helps to avoid vagueness, because a hokku is in essence a sensory experience in the mind, created by reading the verse. If the verse is not clear, it makes it difficult for the reader to “get it,” to have the experience.

The problem with this verse then, from the hokku perspective, is not in the subject but in the presentation. If we were to make a hokku from the same basic subject, there are a number of possibilities. Let’s look at one, so that we may see how a hokku differs from the “haiku” original:

The frozen slough;
Snow blows in drifts
Among the cattails.

As you can see, the verse is now in hokku format. Each line begins with a capital letter. It ends with a period. And the very important punctuation mark that separates the longer and shorter part of the hokku is there.

It is easy now to see that the shorter part is The frozen slough. And that the longer part is Snow blows in drifts Among the cattails. This enables the reader to more vividly and clearly experience the verse.

If we consider the often helpful “setting, subject, action” formula in composing the hokku, we can say this:

The setting is: The frozen slough;
The subject is: Snow;
And the action is: blows in drifts among the cattails.

That gives us a feeling of unity and harmony missing in the original, and makes it easy for the reader to assimilate.

If we want to put the emphasis in a slightly different place, we might try another version, like this:

Cattails bending
In the snowy wind;
The frozen slough.

This time the longer part of the hokku comes first, and the shorter part second, and the punctuation mark (a semicolon) is there to separate them.  An important purpose of the separating mark is to give the reader a meditative moment in which to experience the first part of the hokku before moving on to the second.

You can see that the way we use the elements in the second example has also changed.

The setting now is: The frozen slough (but it comes last this time);
The subject is: Cattails;
And the action is: bending in the snowy wind.

So that is how to take the basic elements and make a hokku of them, rather than a “haiku.” But keep in mind that it is only possible because the original, though not a hokku, had two necessary characterics that allow one to make a hokku:  It had Nature as its subject matter, and it had a seasonal context, winter in this case.

Unlike Christine’s example, many modern haiku do not have Nature or the place of humans as a part of Nature as their subject; nor are they set in a particular season. Without those essentials, one cannot make a hokku.

This is probably a good place to remind everyone that though modern English-language “haiku” was inspired by old Japanese hokku, it was created largely as a misunderstanding of the nature of hokku — a misunderstanding and misperception that really got under way in the 1960s, even though it began earlier. Since then much “haiku” has moved even farther away from hokku, so far in fact that now a “haiku” is most any kind of brief verse that its writer chooses to give that name.

Modern hokku, by contrast, still retains the basic essentials of the old hokku — its subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. Its context is a given season. And as you see, it has a definite form — a longer part separated from a shorter part by appropriate punctuation. And the first letter of each line is capitalized in English-language hokku, and the verse ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.

As you know from earlier postings, when a hokku is written, it is always classified by season, and that classification goes with it when shared. That enables the verse to be read in the correct season, and it also enables a verse to be placed in the correct season when included in an anthology with other verses. In old Japanese hokku, verses were classified according to season by the use of certain topics in the verse. That system became gradually more and more complex and unwieldy — and thus un-hokku-like in its complexity — so today we simply head the hokku with the appropriate seasonal classification when shared, like this:


The frozen slough;
Snow blows in drifts
Among the cattails.

It is important to note that the same principles used here to make a hokku from Christine’s original apply also, of course, to making a hokku from any original experience of Nature. So when you have an experience that moves you, you can just reduce it to its essentials, as I did here. We started with:

A frozen slough

We added the wind to those ingredients. In the first hokku we indicated the wind by the word “blows,” and in the second hokku we actually wrote “wind.”

You can apply this principle to any original hokku experience in Nature.  First, reduce it to its basic elements, and then all you need do is arrange those elements in a way that creates a sense of unity and harmony, putting them into the hokku form as you do so.

Writing hokku is not difficult. It just requires one to learn the principles of form and content, and to absorb the proper “spirit,” the right atmosphere for a hokku, which is often very different from that found in modern haiku. Fortunately, Christine’s example (thanks, Christine!) had a good subject base with which to begin — a strong experience of Nature in a seasonal context — one that really expresses the character of the season. All that was needed was to harmonize and unify the content by putting it into the hokku format.

By the way, if you are American you will commonly hear “slough” pronounced as sloo (rhymes with “boo”) while in Britain the usual pronunciation is slau (rhymes with plow).




Today it is grey and cold and raining where I am, so this slight variation on a winter hokku by Buson seems appropriate.  I can omit the seasonal heading because it is in the verse itself:

Lotuses withered,
The pond is bleak;
Winter rain.

The original is:

Hasu karete ike asamashiki shigure kana

Lotus withered pond miserable winter-rain kana

You may recall that kana was largely a kind of filler word used to pad out the 17 sound units customary in old hokku.  With punctuation and the greater freedom of English language hokku, we no longer need such padding.





I have mentioned before that in old Japanese hokku there is a term for staying shut up indoors during cold winter days.  It is fuyugomori, which R. H. Blyth translates as “winter seclusion.”  Yet Westerners may fail to grasp what is meant by that translation unless already familiar with hokku.  So it is rather an “in” term.


Some hokku that are interesting in Japanese are a challenge to try to fit into the English language.  There is, for example, this verse about winter seclusion by Buson.  Here is the original transliterated, and with a rather literal translation:

To ni inu no negaeru oto ya fuyugomori

Door at dog ‘s turning-over sound; winter-seclusion

The tricky thing is that the Japanese verb implies the dog is turning over while sleeping.  So if we just say what is happening in this hokku, we get something rather awkward:

At the door,
The sound of the sleeping dog turning over;
Winter seclusion.

Now obviously the second line is excessively long for hokku in English.  What can be done?  Well, we have to take the hokku completely out of the Japanese form and make it thoroughly English, and we could even using a rather informal expression for “seclusion,” like this:

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Holed up in winter.

That way we give the sound instead of actually using the word “sound.”

Or if we prefer the traditional translation of fuyugomori — which one familiar with hokku understands, we can just present the verse as

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Winter seclusion.

That actually has a bit better rhythm.

The verse — whether in Japanese or English — is effective in giving us the sense of the boring, drowsy, long passage of time indoors in the cold of winter (minus the noise of television, of course).  The monotonous silence is suddenly broken by the banging of the sleeping dog against the door as he rolls over.

It is little moments like this — little events that express the nature of the season — that hokku delights in.  And this emphasis on such little but expressive things is what makes hokku so very different from other verse forms, as does its focus on Nature and the seasons.





Those familiar with Alfred Edward Housman will know that a “sports” poem by him is not going to be simply a sports poem.  That is certainly the case with today’s example, which is poem XVII (#17) in his collection A Shropshire Lad.  We shall take it part by part.  It is titled:


Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

“Thorough” here is just an old spelling of “through.”  And “football” here is the British term for what Americans traditionally call “soccer,” though with the current spread of popularity for the game in the United States, the term “football” for it has become better known.

A man looks back to the youthful days of his life.  He is (at least in memory) on the playing field, and tells us that twice every week, all through the winter, he stood on this spot as goalkeeper (shortened to “goalie” or “keeper”).  But he was an unhappy young man, melancholy, and in those days football then was a way of fighting his sorrow, of keeping the sadness and depression out of mind.  It was a common belief in British schools of that time that sports were an important part of male education, helping to provide, as the Latin saying goes, mens sana in corpore sano — “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”


He does not tell us why he was sad.  Housman himself was homosexual, and there would have been reason enough for a person so inclined to sorrow in those days when it was spoken of in whispers, the so-called “love that dare not speak its name.”  Not only was there the possibility of being a social outcast if word got out, but also there were sobering legal penalties.  So Housman knew well what it meant to be “acquainted with grief,” as the biblical expression puts it.

But speaking more generally, there are many reasons why a young man might be given to sadness and depression, with the reasons varying as widely as the individuals.  And one thinks too of William Blake’s notion that some are just “born that way,” recalling these lines from his poem Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

So we know our young man was deeply unhappy, and used football as an escape all through the winter days.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

The season moves on to spring.  It is the month of May, and the seasonal sport now played is that quintessentially British game, cricket.  Our unhappy young man marches out to the rectangular “pitch,” that is, the playing area.  He has his flat cricket bat, and wears the customary knee pads.  He stands at the wicket.  In cricket there are two wickets, one at each end of the pitch, consisting of three short upright sticks in the ground topped with two loose crosspieces called “bails.”

So as he marches out with bat and pads to the wicket, he invites the reader to see him as he was then, a “son of grief,” that is, a very sad young man, trying again to keep his sorrow temporarily at bay, “trying to be glad.”

Housman uses the football season (approximately autumn to spring) and the cricket season (approximately spring to autumn) to show us how the speaker in the poem attempted to deal with his unhappiness throughout the year.

And now Housman comes to the summation of the matter, looking back on the youthful attempt of the lad to fight sorrow through sport:

Try I will; no harm in trying: 
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

As in those young days of playing sports, the speaker of the poem says, “Try I will.”  He will keep trying to keep sadness off, because trying certainly does no harm, though success may be limited.  Because after all, he says, it is a wonder how little mirth, how little enjoyment in life, keeps a person from just giving up on living entirely, and becoming merely dead bones lying in the earth.

Housman frequently turns to this kind of bittersweet paradox.  It takes but little pleasure in life to make a person want to keep living, and the speaker of the poem wonders that it takes so little — just the escape in a game of football, or in a game of cricket.  Or, of course, in any number of other things.

It reminds one of Woody Allen’s comments at the end of the movie Annie Hall:

“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’  Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

That is the “glass half empty” approach.  But there is also the “glass half full” approach that we find in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  The Spirit of Christmas Past takes miserly Ebenezer Scrooge back in time to a Christmas Party, small in cost, but rich in mirth, held by his kindly first employer, Mr. Fezziwig.  The Spirit comments on the party Fezziwig has provided, and thus evokes in Scrooge significant thoughts on the way Fezziwig treated his fellow humans:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
“Small!” echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,
“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

I hope in this holiday season. as the Midwinter Solstice approaches, that we may all try, in whatever way, to make the burdens on our fellow humans a little lighter, at minimum no more severe.  And as Housman wrote, “…no harm in trying.”

Here again is the whole poem, at one go:

Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.