Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:


A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:


On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.


One thought on “DEFINING HOKKU

  1. davisbthompson


    I’m a high school English teacher in Alabama, and I’ve really enjoyed your hokku emails for some time now. I honestly can’t even remember how I ran across your blog, but I’ve very much appreciated both your hokku entries and the superb readings you do of other types of poem (like Housman).

    I’m slowly educating myself through your writing about the difference between modern haiku and hokku.

    I do what I have (probably wrongly) called “haiku” in my class for a long time now. I basically make a mini-lecture about how haiku is NOT what you wrote in elementary school and expose seniors to Basho, Buson, and Issa. They love it. Of course, they love Issa. I did have a student who later went on to study Japanese and live in Japan take me sorely to task for mistaking “haiku” for “hokku” and “senryu.” I keep trying to get them straight.

    But, regardless of my misnaming, my students love “haiku” so much that I sometimes get odd e-mails from them–like the one I received today from a sophomore at UChicago:

    Hey Mr. Thompson!

    How do you feel about this translation of the Basho haiku you showed us:

    Underneath the trees soups and salads are buried in cherry blossoms

    I think it doesn’t roll off the tongue as nice but the imagery is more surprising.

    Anyways, hope all is well!


    The translation I used in class with Peter (I think it’s from Jon Hass—I’m not sure) was this one:

    From all these trees,

    in the salads, the soup, everywhere,

    cherry blossoms fall.

    So I put both translations on the board this morning for my students, and we had a long conversation about the effect of both texts. One of my Korean students looked up the hokku in Korean translation as well. I’m afraid none of us know Japanese, nor have I ever taught a Japanese student in my eighteen years of teaching.

    The debate we had reminded me very much of your emails. I wish I could’ve had you in the room to educate us all–probably with the original Japanese toward the “best” translation.

    I’m forwarding on your e-mail about “Defining Hokku” to all my seniors in case any of them want to subscribe to your insightful pieces.

    So. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.


    Davis Thompson

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