Kwanrai (1748-1817) wrote this early summer hokku — a daoku (objective hokku) in English.  I was only able to find the transliteration of the original:

Shira-gumo no sora yuku keshi no sakaru kana
White cloud  ‘s   sky  goes  poppy ‘s  blooming kana

In my translation:

A sky
Of white clouds passing;
Blooming poppies.

It is very simple — almost just an illustration, were it not for the movement of the clouds.  There is a similarity of feeling between the passing evanescent clouds and the frail impermanence of the poppy flowers.

Much in this verse depends on the perceived color of the poppies.  If they were white, they would reflect the whiteness of the clouds; if red or purple, there would be a strong contrast.  In the absence of knowing, it is easy to fill in whatever poppies commonly bloom in our individual regions at this time of year.  In my little garden, it would be either the gold of California poppies — which Steinbeck described in East of Eden as “of a burning color  — not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies”; or it might be the delicate orange or yellow of Spanish poppies — Papaver atlanticum.  In Kwanrai’s time and place they would likely have been Papaver somniferum — opium poppies, which can be anything from white to pink to red to deep purple.

Kwanrai’s hokku consists of two elements placed together.  Here they are sky and earth — the passing white clouds far above, and blooming poppies below.  It is a simple way to write, but often not successful if there is no perceived link or harmony between the two elements.

Shiki also made a two-element summer verse, this time linking earth and water:

Roku-gatsu no umi miyuru nari tera no zō
六         月    の    海   見ゆる なり    寺   の

Sixth  moon ‘s    sea  seen      is  temple’s   images.

The June sea
is seen;
The temple images.

It does not read well that way, which is why Blyth made a more interpretive translation:

The temple Buddhas;
In the distance,
The June sea.

Though not a literal translation, in English Blyth’s rendering is a distinct improvement on the original.  Blyth has clarified that the images are Buddha images in a Buddhist temple, and that makes us think of the shadowed interior of a temple at the coast.  From it, the glittering sea of summer can be seen in the distance —  Blyth has added the word — so we have the contrast of the unmoving Buddha images in the still, shadowy temple with the bright, ever-moving sea in the distance, as well as the contrast of the temple above and the sea below.





  1. I love Kwanrai’s verse! It’s beautiful, with its emphasis on ephemerality. To me, that means changing from one entity into another. It doesn’t just mean dying, as many people think. The clouds change shape or fall as rain; poppies (flowers) develop into seeds and another individual poppy plant. It’s not “all things must pass;” is it? It’s “all things must change.” Everything changes! Everything! Thanks for your thought provoking verses, David!

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