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).


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