Onitsura wrote this spring hokku:

Mata mo mata hana ni chirarete utsura utsura

Here it is in daoku form:

Again and again
As the blossoms fall —
Nodding off.

It is a very relaxing verse, with the gentle falling of the blossoms and the drowsiness of the experience.  Notice how it is expressed with no need for the word “I.”  Notice too that this is a good example of something seen in a different way — which is very helpful in composing good daoku.

A Japanese would know from the word hana in the original that the blossoms are most likely cherry blossoms, but in English it could be any blossoming tree scattering its petals in the spring.

We could be more specific, like this:

Again and again
As cherry blossoms fall —
Nodding off.




In a previous posting, we looked at the 19th century American poet William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.”  Much that was said there is also appropriate to a discussion of today’s poem, “The Rhodora,” by another American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882).  Bryant’s poem was published in 1818, and Emerson wrote today’s poem in 1834.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

As with Bryant’s poetry, we must keep in mind a characteristic of much 19th century poetry: the general feeling that everyday language was too common for something as “exalted” as poetry, so poets tended to sprinkle their verses heavily with bits of Elizabethan English, with “thee” (you) and “thou” (you) and “thy” (your) and lots of old-fashioned forms and endings to verbs, such as “dost” for “do” and “seekest” for “seek,” and “wert” for “were.”

Though it was not at all their everyday language, such out-of-date phrasing was nonetheless very familiar to them from common public knowledge of the King James translation of the Bible, which in those days was considered the Bible.  All of this old-fashioned English can seem just too “precious” and overblown for modern readers, and it is all too easy to imagine, as I said previously, such a poem being declaimed by some artsy fellow with forefinger on right hand dramatically upraised.  Once we realize, however, that such artificially “high-flown” and deliberately archaic language was just a characteristic of the times and the prevalent notions, we may see through it to what lies beyond.  Keep that in mind as we go through Emerson’s poem.

You will also need to know that the Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) is a wild shrub with colorful pinkish-purple blossoms that appear on the bare branches before they have yet leafed out, or just as leaves are beginning to sprout.  In Massachusetts — which was where Emerson lived — it blooms in damp and swampy wetland areas in May.  Its range extends from Pennsylvania northward into southern Canada.

You will also want to be reminded that the now seldom-seen word “whence” means “from where,” just as its companion word “whither” means “to where.”  In spite of their clarity and usefulness, both have largely fallen out of use in modern English.  So when we see the title of today’s poem —

On being asked, whence is the flower?

We know that it means in ordinary English:

On being asked, “Where is the flower from?”

In other words, someone likely asked Emerson, “Ralph — where did you get the flower?” — and that gave him the excuse for writing a poem.

Now let’s look at the poem, which I will discuss part by part.

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.

Concord, Massachusettswhere Emerson lived — was some 35 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean to the East.   He wrote the poem in Newton, which was only about 12 miles from the sea.  In May the sea breezes — the easterly winds from the sea — are frequent in that region.  So Emerson tells us that in May, when the winds from the from the sea blew into “our solitudes,” meaning the uninhabited, woodsy places outside the towns — the wilder and more lonely places — he found the newly-blooming Rhodora in the woods.  It spread out its “leafless blooms” — which as we saw is characteristic of the shrub — in a damp recess of the forest — “to please the desert and the sluggish brook.”

By “to please the desert and the sluggish brook,” Emerson is merely telling us that the shrub was not blooming to please anyone — because until he came along and found it, there was nothing where it grew but “the desert,” by which he means its wild location with no people (desert in its old use signified a wild, uninhabited place) — and the “sluggish brook” — a slow-moving little stream.

The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.

Emerson saw purplish petals of the Rhodora that had fallen into a pool of water, making the blackish, rather stagnant water look “gay” with their beauty.  This is of course an older use of “gay” — not the modern “same-sex preference” definition.  Emerson is saying that the petals fallen into the dark pool make it look bright and colorful.  He adds that the red-bird might come to that pool “his plumes to cool,” meaning to cool his feathers — or in simpler words, to splash about.

The Red-bird/Redbird was and is a common name for the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis):

He adds the fanciful notion that the red-bird might “court the flower that cheapens his array,” meaning the red-bird might try to impress (as a male would a female) the flower that makes his own bright feathers look “cheap” — less impressive than the petals of the Rhodora.

Now Emerson gets to the philosophical part of the poem:

Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;

He says, if the sages/wise men ask the Rhodora why its charm is wasted “on the earth and sky — that is, wasted on this world, growing in places where people may not even see it — then the answer — in Emerson’s view — is this: that just as eyes exist so one may see, beauty exists so it may be beautiful — whether someone is there to see and appreciate it or not.  His analogy is a bit shaky, and of course this notion of sages talking to a flower and getting an answer from it is just Emerson’s rhetorical way of making  a point — that beauty needs no excuse.  It just is.

He continues, in his old fashioned English, by presenting the question again:

Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!

By that he asks, what is the reason for the blossoming in a wild, lonely place of a flower that in its beauty rivals the rose — “Rhodora, why were you there?”

And then he gives his own answer:

I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.

When he was in the woods looking at the blooming Rhodora, he just enjoyed its beauty, not even thinking to wonder why it was there — and he never really knew why it was there — but he has a supposition about it:

“But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.”

Really, the whole point of the poem is in those last two lines.  Emerson was a New England Transcendentalist, who felt that Divinity pervaded all of nature, and was the power behind all that happens.  So when we read that Emerson supposes

“The self-same power that brought me there, brought you” …

He is saying essentially the same thing that Bryant said in “To a Waterfowl”:

“He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.”

The lesson, Bryant tells us (through the fiction of talking to the bird), is that the same Power that guides the waterfowl on a sure path through the endless sky, will also lead the poet himself through life and beyond, will be the unseen guide on the unmarked path which everyone must walk for himself or herself.

And that is Emerson’s

The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.”




A spring hokku by Charai:

Plum blossoms —
Even though the snow is falling,
Still blooming.

Ume no hana   yuki ga furite mo   saki ni keri
Plum  ‘s  flowers  snow ga falling too  blooming at keri




Two years ago (2018), Penguin Classics came out with an anthology titled The Penguin Book of Haiku.  One might have thought it would include all kinds of undiscovered treasures of old hokku, but that turned out not be be true.  Instead, the best part of the book was its rather iconoclastic introduction, which dispassionately cuts away many of the fantasies associated with the history of the hokku — out of which “haiku” had its beginnings near the end of the 19th century.

The author — Adam L. Kern — has many sensible things to say about what he calls haiku, for example:

“Accordingly, Bashō, the first of the Four Grandmasters of Haiku, the poetic genius who single-handedly elevated boneheaded wordplay to bona fide art form called haiku, the undisputed patron saint of haiku, never, strictly speaking, wrote a single haiku in his life.  How could he have, when the haiku dates only to circa 1894, two centuries after the man’s death in 1694?”

Now as readers here know, I have been saying for decades that Bashō did not call what he wrote “haiku.”

Somewhat confusingly, however, though in the text Kern makes clear that the old hokku and the later haiku are not the same thing, he goes on to oddly distinguish them in the text by anachronistically italicizing the earlier verse form as haiku, leaving the later category initiated by Shiki un-italicized as haiku.  He differentiates them like this:


“… derives from an eclectic variety of collaboratively authored witty linked-verse practices that flourished primarily during Japan’s premodern Edo period (1600-1868) and into the modern Meiji (1868-1912).”


” … Indeed the haiku, far from being traditional, existing long ago and continuing to the present day in the same unadulterated form, is traditionalist, claiming the authority of tradition though actually brought into existence in the mid 1890s.  This is hardly ancient by Western standards, let alone Japanese.”

As for the connection with Zen, he writes:

“Haiku is assuredly not Zen poetry.  And contrary to popular belief, Bashō was no Zen master.  That he shaved his head and donned priestly garb was equivalent, during his lifetime, to wearing a beret to signify one’s status as an artiste.”

Well, that is both true and not true.  While one certainly cannot legitimately say that all writers of the hokku (and certainly not the later haiku) were Zen Buddhists, one can legitimately say that the best of old hokku were permeated by the Zen aesthetic that also strongly influenced the other Japanese arts, among them tea, calligraphy, painting, and Noh.  And of course Japanese culture in general was heavily influenced by Mahayana Buddhism in some form — and Zen is Mahayana (the “Northern” category of Buddhism in contrast to the “Southern” or Theravada).

In short, aside from terminology, there is much in the book’s introduction to recommend for those interested in the history of hokku and of the origins of the later haiku.  The problem arises when one goes beyond the introduction into the book itself, which turns out to be a surprisingly (and disappointingly) varied collection of many kinds of brief verse, all of which the author has chosen to throw together under the wide umbrella classification “haiku.”

Now to be fair, the author gives an advance warning of this in the introduction:

“And so two caveats.  First, readers of this volume expecting the haiku, or even merely a premodern equivalent, might be in for a shock.  Given the silly, satirical, scatological and sensual content of many verses, traditionalists in particular may well be scandalized, fearing that a Trojan horse has been smuggled into the Holy Citadel of Haiku.”

This is a legitimate caution to readers that what they are about to encounter is not going to be what they expect.  Instead, one finds a small number of  hokku of quality scattered amid a much larger collection that abundantly includes what the author describes as “‘dirty sexy’ haiku.” — indeed, a mixture of forms, including linked verses, senryu, etc — all dumped into the same laundry bag.  While one cannot claim not to have been forewarned in the introduction, by the time one gets to page XXVI, where this revelation is made, it is already too late — the reader will already own the book, unless — as I did — it is borrowed from a library.

Then there is the matter of translation.  Leaving the question of the author’s choices regarding omission of capitalization and often punctuation, the verses of diverse kinds vary in translation from the quite literal to the sometimes confusingly interpretive.

An example from Buson:

bursting open
disgorging its rainbow:
peony dynamo!

The problem is in the last line.  Buson died in 1784.  “Dynamo,” whether used of a machine or figuratively of a human, is an English term that came into use in the 1880s for the former, the 1890s for the latter.  It is anachronistic and inappropriate here, in spite of Kern’s interpretive intent.  He should have been satisfied with simply

Bursting open,
Disgorging a rainbow —
The peony.

Almost a literary crime is Kern’s translation of Hashin’s winter hokku as:

heaven and earth:
neither exists apart from
Snow fluttering down.

While the original says simply,
Ten mo chi mo   nashi tada yuki no furishikiri
Sky too earth too are-not  only snow ‘s ceaselessly-falling


No sky nor earth —
Only snow
Endlessly falling.

Another example — Buson’s

a line of geese!
and upon the mountain crest
the moon as impress.

As a translation it is aesthetically disappointing.  To the author’s credit, however, is the explanation he gives in the verse commentaries that follow the anthology, which in the case of this verse is quite good:

“An imaginative visual double take [mitate] of an ostensibly observed natural scene as though it were an inkwash landscape painting with some kind of inscribed haiku, perhaps, replete with the artist’s round seal (insu), emphasized by an extra syllabet.  Buson has charmingly taken to its logical extreme the classic poetic trope likening a column of wild geese to a vertical line of calligraphy, as with the following waka by Tsumori no Kunimoto (c.1023-1102): ‘how they resemble / the lines of a letter / written in light greys — / those geese returning homeward / through darkening skies ….'”

Readers are likely to be mystified by the bizarre arrangement of the verses, which mixes the four seasons in a manner the author thought, it appears, indicative of the “collaborative flow” of old linked verse.  It was a serious error that completely neglects the significance of the season and is not at all helpful.

In summation, my view is that paradoxically, the best parts of The Penguin Book of Haiku are first, the introduction, and second, the commentary following the verse collection.  The anthology itself, lying in the bulk of remaining pages, is extremely trying for readers, as one searches among the multitude of trivial and pornographic entries for quality verses rising above that low level.  Consequently, the book is likely to be of interest primarily to those who want an overview of all the various kinds of brief verse (briefer than waka) written in old Japan, from the pornographic and erotic, the satirical and the humorous, to the fewer hokku of quality included in this multifarious and — I think for most readers — disappointing and regrettable mixture.  While one may understand the author’s purpose in using such a collection to puncture romanticized notions about old Japanese verse, that does not lessen the unsatisfying and inconvenient nature of the anthology.

On leafing through it, I could not help being reminded what an excellent job of selection R. H. Blyth did in his four Haiku volumes and two History of Haiku volumes — which together still offer the reader the finest anthology of the best of old hokku available to date — though these books have paradoxically now been out of print for several years.




In a previous posting, we saw that while all daoku is hokku, not all hokku is daoku.  In the English language they are identical in form, but can be differentiated by content.  Daoku is objective, while hokku can sometimes be more subjective.

Here is an example — a spring verse by Sodō:

宿の春   何もなきこそ   何もあれ
Yado no haru   nani mo naki koso   nani mo areDwelling ‘s spring what-too is-not at-all what-too is

Though quite cryptic in a direct translation, we can paraphrase it in English as:

My spring dwelling;
Though nothing at all is there,
All is there.

Now as you see, “my” is not included in the original — only implied.

Blyth translates it as:

In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, —
There is everything!

This is obviously a philosophical hokku, not an objective verse.  It shows us the “thinking” of the writer.  There is a place for such verses, and this one is often quoted because people find its paradoxical nature superficially very “Zen,” and some in the modern haiku movement have eagerly adopted the use of paradox in writing.  It is not, however, suitable for daoku, which avoids subjective and philosophical comments, preferring to remain with the concrete rather than the abstract — with things and sensory experience rather than our ideas and musings about them.

That is why this verse is not useful as a model for daoku — an example of “all daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”

We can clearly see the difference if we look at an objective spring hokku by Buson that is very appropriate as a daoku model:

燭の火を   燭にうつすや   春の夕
Shoku no hi wo    shoku ni utsusu ya   haru no yū
Candle ‘s flame wo  candle at copy ya   spring ‘s evening

Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.

It makes a very good daoku, because it gives us only the golden light of the candles in the shadows of the spring evening, as we see one used to light the other.  It is very objective — experiencing, not “thinking.”  It has a wonderful simplicity — ordinary things in ordinary words.  In this lighting of one candle with another, we feel a deep, unspoken significance — and of course behind it all is the impermanence so important to the atmosphere of hokku.

Notice that an action is taking place, yet there is no “I,” “me,” or “my.”  That enables us to focus on the action — on the sensory experience — without being distracted by the “self” of a writer.