Here is a hokku by Chora that requires a rather interpretive translation to make sense in English.

Autumn begins;
In the flowing clouds
The wind is seen.

The flow of clouds in the sky reveals the wind — the first sign of the wind of autumn that will become more and more obvious as the season progresses.  It is the wind that carries the clouds across the sky.

In the Japanese original, it is like this:

Autumn begins;
Clouds flowing —
The wind is seen.

If one reads that before the interpretive translation however, English speakers are likely to fail to see the connection between the clouds and the wind, which is why an interpretive translation makes the relationship clear — and thus is better.

Aki tatsu ya kumo wa nagarete kaze miyuru
秋   たつ や    雲     は  ながれて   風   見 ゆる
Autumn begins ya cloud wa flow wind is-seen

Remember that a hokku should be simple and clear; one should not have to puzzle it out.  Its effect on the reader should be immediate.  Vagueness was sometimes found in old Japanese hokku, but it was a flaw rather than a virtue, and should not be emulated when composing in English.




A hokku in daoku form by Shōha:


On the white wall,
Shadows of dragonflies
Flitting by.

         壁  に  蜻  蛉  過ぐる  日 影    かな
Shira-kabe ni tombō suguru hikage kana
White wall on dragonfly pass shadow kana

The shadows of the dragonflies and their translucent wings on the white wall in the autumn sun are fleeting, and their impermanence is in keeping with  the sense of autumn as a time when impermanence is much in evidence.

This hokku is a study in grey and white — the whiteness of the wall, and the faint grey shadows of the dragonflies — so it is very simple, but also effective.

This daoku (objective hokku) is a good example of the “setting/subject/action” form because they are so clearly separated here:

Setting:  On the white wall
Subject:  Shadows of dragonflies
Action:  Flitting by

The S/S/A form is a very good one for beginners in hokku because it enables them to arrange the significant elements of a hokku experience easily, and countless hokku can be written using it.  Because it is simple does not mean, however, that it is only for beginners.  It is a good tool for writers of hokku at any stage, from beginner to very advanced.

For those of  you who may come to hokku from other short verse traditions such as modern haiku, be sure to note the definite characteristics of the daoku form:

It consists of three lines.
The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts to the verse, one long and one short.
The two parts are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark.
The daoku ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.

Remember that unlike modern haiku, contemporary hokku in English has not only a definite form, but also definite aesthetic principles that the student of hokku must gradually learn and absorb.  Also unlike much of modern haiku, hokku keeps the strong connection with the seasons found in old hokku, so every verse has a seasonal heading in parentheses, as you see above.

Also, it is very important to remember that unlike much of modern haiku, contemporary hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

If you are unfamiliar with the term daoku, it simply means an objective hokku — one without any opinions or comments of the writer added, or as we commonly say, “no thinking.”  Daoku form means the standard form we use in writing contemporary hokku — the form shown above.





I have discussed today’s verse before (in 2017), but it is worth mentioning again in a little more detail.  It was written by Kyoshi, whose prolific verses on the whole tend to be rather bland, and who wrote in and beyond the time of Shiki.  He even took over as editor of the magazine — Hototogisu — that Shiki had formerly edited.  That means we are in the “haiku” period, even though like Shiki, Kyoshi kept season words and a more conservative kind of verse that was sometimes indistinguishable from hokku — which is why I am discussing a verse by him today as daoku (objective hokku) in English.  Here it is:

On the dust on the stones —
Autumn rain.

Ishi no ue no hokori ni furu ya aki no ame
石    の  上 の       埃  に  降るや   秋  の   雨
Stone ‘s on ‘s   dust   at  falling ya autumn ‘s rain

I think of this as one of those transitional verses written at the time when one season has begun merging into another, in this case summer has transitioned into autumn.  We still feel the lingering heat and dryness of summer in the dust on the stones, but the rain is the rain of autumn, and its drops spatter the dust on the stones into mud.  It is a very objective verse, and quite good because it not only lets us feel the seasonal change clearly, but it also has a strong appeal to the senses in its mixture of dryness (Yang) and wetness (Yin).  So we see it is a verse with harmony of contrast.

You may recall that harmony of contrast is a technique used in hokku through combining things felt to be opposite or contrary in a way that reveals an underlying harmony, as in this combination of dust and rain, dryness and wetness, that nonetheless create a very satisfying combination.

We could translate the verse very closely to Kyoshi, like this:

On the dust
On the stones it falls —
Autumn rain.

There is something a bit awkward about that, however, as we often find when we try to translate more literally.  So we could translate a bit more loosely, while still keeping the meaning:

The dust on the stones —
Autumn rain.

You may recall that I once made a slight variation on Kyoshi’s verse in this daoku:

Autumn begins;
Rain spatters the dust
On the stones.

R. H. Blyth spoke of the poet “dissolved in the object,” by which he meant the same as we say in hokku: that the writer must get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That selflessness is the objectivity of daoku.  Today’s verse, therefore, well qualifies as daoku– objective hokku.




As I have mentioned many times, when R. H. Blyth wrote about haiku in his four- volume set under that title, as well as in his two-volume History of Haiku and in his other writings, what he was really talking about was hokku.  Yes, he included verses of Masaoka Shiki — the “founder” of haiku — in his anthology, but as we have seen, Shiki for all practical purposes still wrote hokku; he just re-named his verses and declared his “haiku” independent of linked verse, though hokku had already often been written independent of linked verse even in the times of Bashō.

So that means generally, when we read Blyth, we can simply substitute “hokku” for the anachronistic term popular in the Japan of Blyth’s time, “haiku”; and I shall do that in what follows.

When, in his book Oriental Humour, Blyth writes of hokku, he says this:

Chinese culture was to a large extent that of rich people, at least of scholars, but in Japan, especially from the seventeenth century [the time of Bashō], there was a poetry of poverty, quite different from that of the Renaissance culture of Europe, based as much of it was upon power and wealth.

Senryu, no less than hokku, arises from poverty, that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty.

Further, he writes something that many may find shocking:

To live the life of hokku it is necessary to be poor and obscure; it is a difficult and narrow way, and few and fewer there be that find it.” (pages 208-209)

Elsewhere, Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write hokku, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.

Now what does all this mean for the writer of hokku today?

Well, it does not mean you have to get rid of everything you own and empty your bank account and live on the street.  It does mean that we — as writers of hokku — should live simply, non-materialistically, and close enough to Nature to be keenly aware of its changes within the seasons.  It also means that we should be able to appreciate simple food and simple pleasures such as a warm blanket on a cold night, or a cool drink of water on a hot day.  We should be able to recognize the essentials in life, and not live as though possessions answered spiritual needs (which they definitely do not).  It means we live modestly rather than extravagantly, and we do not try to “make a name for ourselves,” which simply feeds the ego — and hokku is definitely not “ego” verse.

On reading of “… that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty,” one thinks of those like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote ‘The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.’  We should be very aware of just what we choose to add to those basics in our lives — and why.  Blyth once suggested that we should have few possessions, but those few should be of the best quality for the purpose that we can manage.

Hokku asks us to look — as Thoreau once did — for the essential facts of life, and not to clutter it with all that is unnecessary and pointlessly distracting — all that our consumer-based society tries to convince us we need — in spite of the environmental and spiritual cost.

Of course in the Japan of the old writers, poverty was common and often right at the door.  We live in easier times today if we are fortunate (and many are not, even in the supposed “wealthiest country in the world”) — but we should still keep to the simplicity and selflessness of hokku.

That poverty also extends to the verse we write.  Hokku is not a florid or extravagant kind of verse.  It uses simple words in simple ways.  It does not try to be clever or intellectual — in fact hokku deliberately avoids intellectualism of all kinds — including the luxury of a writer ornamenting or elaborating or commenting needlessly on his subject.  Everything is kept very bare, using only what is essential to convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons.  That is why we often mention three of the important characteristics of hokku as poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

That does not, of course, mean that the life of hokku is without pleasure, but it is not the kind of pleasure modern society often so frantically seeks.  Instead, the life of hokku is one of simple pleasures, and those may be found in many places, and often without cost.  Here is a hokku in daoku form by Bashō:


Among the stones
In the stone seller’s yard —
Blooming chrysanthemums.

菊      の     花  咲く や  石屋  の  石   の  間
Kiku no hana saku ya ishiya no ishi no ai
Chrysanthemum’s flower bloom ya stone-seller ‘s stones among




We have entered autumn by the old hokku calendar — the decline of the year.  Autumn is the progressive weakening and retreat of the vital forces in Nature.  In old China, this weakening was called the “return to the root,” and that is precisely what we see.  The sap falls in the trees, and many plants either die (if they are annuals) or the energy goes into the roots below the soil surface (if they are perennials).

In time, autumn corresponds with mid afternoon to twilight.  In human life, it corresponds with the beginnings and progress of old age.  It is the time of increasing loss, which is also why it is the time — in agricultural communities — for storing away food for the coming of winter.  In terms of Yin (passive, cool) and Yang energies (active, warm), Autumn is declining Yang and increasing Yin.

Autumn, in hokku, is above all the time when we become aware of the impermanence of things, both in Nature and in human life.  We see it in the withering of plants, in the coloring and falling of leaves, and in the change and gradually cooling of the weather.

The beginning of autumn is a good time to review some of the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  Both are written today, but they generally have very different principles.  I know that people involved in the modern haiku community — either directly or indirectly — come here and read my site, and sometimes it is obvious that they do not understand that hokku and haiku are fundamentally two very different things — and that it is a mistake to confuse them.  If you approach hokku as though it were haiku, you will never understand it.

Haiku — though in name it began in Japan with the reforms of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — is really a modern creation.  In the West, it grew out of misunderstandings of the old hokku, which was seen in terms familiar to Western poets, and viewed through the lens of Western notions of poetry.  That led it off on a very different course from that of hokku, and modern haiku has continued on that somewhat erratic and rudderless course today.  Haiku has become whatever an individual writer says it is — so there are many different kinds of haiku.  The one constant is generally that matters such as form and content and aesthetics are left to individual choice — and that accounts for why there are different “sects” in the modern haiku community, and why “haiku” has become an umbrella term covering many disparate kinds of verse under the very wide “haiku” umbrella.

The tendency in modern haiku is for it to diverge ever farther from the hokku that originally was its inspiration, however misunderstood in the West it may have been.  But given the great range of variation among modern haiku writers, there are some closer to hokku and some farther and farther away.

What are some of the differences between hokku and haiku?

First, there is the form.  As we have seen, form in modern haiku varies considerably.  Some use no capitalization; some use no or minimal punctuation; some vary the number of lines, or even reduce it to one word; and some — surprisingly — still follow the notion (based on a misunderstanding) that it should be written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.  All of these are permissible in modern haiku.

In contemporary hokku, by contrast, the form is standardized.  A hokku consists of three lines, the middle often — but not always — longer than the other two.  It is divided into two segments:  a longer portion of two lines, and a shorter of one.  The shorter segment may come either at the beginning or the end.  The two segments are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark (not just a hyphen, as is often done in modern haiku).  The hokku also ends with appropriate punctuation.  This standardized form works very well, and makes controversy over form quite unnecessary.

A significant difference between hokku and modern haiku is that much of the modern haiku community pays little or no attention to season.  In hokku season is crucially important.  Every hokku is written in one of the four seasons, and is also to be read in that season.  Summer hokku are not written in winter, nor are winter hokku written in some other season.  That practice helps to keep the writer constantly in touch with Nature and the changing seasons.  Old hokku used specific season words, but that practice became eventually so complicated that it took years for a learner to master it — which is really contrary to the simplicity of hokku.  In modern hokku, we simply head every verse with the season in which it is written, like this:


That way, when hokku are read or shared or anthologized, one always knows the appropriate season for each verse.

Related to the difference in use of season between modern haiku and hokku is the great difference in attitude toward Nature.  In hokku, Nature is all important.  The very definition of modern hokku is that it has as its subject matter “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, seen in the context of the seasons.”  Modern haiku, however (except for the more conservative segments), may abandon Nature entirely, resulting in verses about modern technology and many other topics quite contrary to hokku’s focus on Nature.

Then there is the matter of topics.  Modern hokku is a form of contemplative verse, the result of its very old influences from Buddhism and Daoism, which continue today as non-dogmatic spirituality.  That means it avoids topics that trouble or disturb the mind, such as romance, sex, and violence.  Modern hokku also has a decided preference for verses written from actual experience, whereas in modern haiku, verses are frequently composed entirely from the imagination of the writer — resulting in haiku that are completely “fictional,” including even haiku about science fiction.

In hokku, however, it is preferred to put aside the intellect as much as possible.  That is why modern hokku are generally quite objective (the term used for such objective hokku is “daoku”).  In hokku we also tend to avoid the use of ego terms such as “I,” “me,” and “my,” except when doing so is impractical.  The point of this is to get the writer out of the way so that Nature may speak.  In modern haiku, by contrast, there is often an emphasis on the individual writer — and on the writer as “poet.”  In modern hokku we generally do not refer to the writer of hokku as a “poet,” nor do we refer to hokku as “poetry,” because both terms — given their Western meanings and frequent subjectivity — are very misleading when applied to hokku.  Where in hokku the objective is generally favored (the omission of the writer’s comments and opinions about the subject) — taking the emphasis off the writer — modern haiku often favors the subjective (including the writer’s thoughts and commentary about the subject).

Now as mentioned, there are some conservative segments of the modern haiku community that are closer to hokku in some respects, and some very experimental segments that are quite far from it.  I noted in a recent book review that one modern haiku writer advocates a return to spirituality, which is something a large segment of the modern haiku community had long discarded — though it has always been a part of modern hokku.  And that writer (Gabriel Rosenstock) also advocated a “disappearance” of the ego — which is quite in keeping with the hokku attitude.  How these manifest in writing, however, often still reveals significant differences between the aesthetics of contemporary hokku and even the more conservative segments of modern haiku.

Here we can look to the old biblical adage, “by their fruits ye shall know them.”  It is not just through the differences or similarities in principle that we distinguish modern haiku from hokku, but also in practice — in the aesthetics of the verse on the page. Modern haiku — in spite of some occasional similarities to hokku — generally lacks the deeper aesthetic background that contemporary hokku has inherited from old hokku — something that was lost when hokku was re-interpreted by Western poets in terms of what they already knew of Western poetics, resulting in the more profound aspects of hokku being abandoned, misunderstood, or ignored as modern haiku developed.

Because of its definite principles and aesthetics, hokku takes time and patience to learn, even though it is ultimately quite simple.  Modern haiku is generally considered an “instant” kind of verse that anyone can quickly learn to write.  Because of that, and because of its rather open boundaries, many choose to write haiku.  Also, there is the obvious fact that modern haiku is far better known than hokku.  Many people have never heard of the hokku.  When I first began teaching it years ago, it was common for people in the modern haiku community to express complete disbelief when I told them that Bashō and Buson and the rest of the old Japanese writers wrote hokku, not “haiku.”  And there was a time in the 20th century when the Haiku Society of America actually wanted writers of dictionaries to declare the word hokku obsolete.

That confusion still exist today, with some in the modern haiku community defining hokku as the “first verse of a series of linked verses,” completely ignoring the fact that hokku were often written independent of linked verse even in the days of Bashō.

Whether to write hokku or haiku comes down, like many things, to simply a matter of personal preference.  Not everyone has the “hokku spirit” and appreciation of Nature that hokku requires.  Some simply wish to “express themselves,” and modern haiku is a much more fitting means to that end than hokku, which has just the opposite goal:  to get the writer out of the way, so that Nature may speak.

For those, however, who want to continue on the old path, writing of Nature and the changing seasons and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, hokku is ideal.






Ivan M. Granger — founder and editor of the Poetry Chaikhana website — ( ) — has bravely sent me a book for review.  I say “bravely,” because he knows I am very critical of the modern haiku movement, and the book received is definitely about haiku.  And if I do not even spare nice old ladies who put into print bad renderings of Bashō , what am I likely to say about a new book advocating the writing of haiku — that mutated offshoot of the old hokku?

Well, let’s see.  Off we go.

Haiku Enlightenment
by Gabriel Rosenstock
Published by Poetry Chaikhana

The first thing one notes about this book is the author’s enthusiasm.  Whatever one may conclude about his views, one cannot deny that Gabriel is sparklingly enthusiastic about his subject, which is evident in the book from beginning to end.

Next comes a surprise.  Unlike the majority of the present pundits of the modern haiku community, which has done its best to completely separate haiku from its spiritual origins,  Gabriel has no qualms about passionately advocating just the opposite:  a very strong grounding of his brand of haiku in non-dogmatic spirituality.  That is evident even in his use of the loaded word “Enlightenment” in the book’s title.

Well, as I have always said, no one ever became enlightened by writing hokku.  I can safely say the same of haiku.  But that one might get a “little” and lower-case enlightenment is something even stated by R. H. Blyth.  It is not the upper-case “big” enlightenment of Buddhism — but it is a very momentary and transitory experience in which the writer or reader becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (that which is written about) disappears.  That is why we can speak of hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment.  So one cannot fault Gabriel for the connection, though it is very important not to confuse the “little” and “big” enlightenments.  Bashō spent a lifetime teaching and writing haikai and hokku, yet he is said to have regretted at the end of his life that he had obsessively devoted so much time to that instead of seeking the “big” enlightenment through Buddhist meditation.  So though writing verse may be an ancillary to a spiritual path (and it is important to note that it may also be a hindrance), it will not enlighten anyone in the “big” sense.

Given that, one may feel that Gabriel has oversold his case for his kind of haiku as a spiritual path, but at least he has remarkably and with fervor restored a connection between verse and spirituality that has long been discarded and scorned in much of the modern haiku community.

In avidly presenting his case, he quotes many different “spiritual” writers and teachers, but one wishes he had stopped before including excerpts from such dangerously destructive personalities as the Tibetan “guru” Chögyam Trungpa and “Osho” — the head of the cultic Rajneesh movement.  Their presence in the book tends to detract from those more legitimate.

Aside from that, Gabriel’s book offers a sizable anthology of verses, including a number of “haiku format” versions of old Japanese hokku — unfortunately sometimes in inferior and even misleading translations, and of course presented anachronistically as “haiku” in keeping with the topic of the book .

Examples of  such translations include this unwise rendering of Bashō:

ancient pond …
a frog jumps
into the sound of water

The translation of its second and third lines is not at all what the verse means in the original.

And this erratic version of Chiyo-ni:

dragon-fly hunter
where has he wandered off to?

In that verse — written about a son who died — the writer was not asking “where has he wandered off to?” but rather kyō wa doko made itta yara — “today what place has he reached, I wonder” — referring to the child’s journey in the afterlife.

Now as we can see from the format of these two examples, Gabriel offers no firm guidance as to form and punctuation, but seemingly accepts the wide variations of practice found in modern haiku — leaving the novice to decide whether to capitalize and when or even if to punctuate.  He does advise “you might prefer to avoid using capital letters, except, perhaps, for the first word”  But he gives no reason for such a preference.

The book includes many verses by recent and contemporary writers of haiku, giving the reader a good idea of tendencies in the haiku community, though generally excluding the more far-out and experimental examples one finds in the more arbitrary writers of today.

Here and there, Gabriel gives some genuinely good advice, such as  “Avoid the use of “I” and “me,” and “mine” as much as possible.”  But it is frequently offset by less helpful suggestions such as “Discarding punctuation can sometimes lead to an engaging ambiguity.”  That is a view quite contrary to the contemporary hokku dictum that an ambiguous verse is a weak and generally failed verse, but in his favor he could easily have pointed to the ambiguity of many old Japanese hokku, in support of a tendency toward occasional vagueness in writing.

He further advises the beginning writer: “Read the haiku classics [by which he means hokku] over and over again, and read the best of the moderns, such as Santōka.”  The problem here is that he neglects to mention the importance of the quality of translation of the old verses one is looking to for help.  There are many bad translations of old verses out there, and several are used in Gabriel’s book, providing bad examples for the learner.  Further, the gap between the form and aesthetics of traditional Japanese hokku and more exploratory and individualistic writers like Santōka is so wide that it is likely to result in much confusion in new writers about just what a verse should be and how it should look — a confusion that is already endemic in modern haiku.

Now it should be obvious that in reviewing Haiku Enlightenment, I am seeing it from the perspective of a long involvement with — and preference for — the hokku;  and the paths of hokku and modern haiku frequently diverge.  In choosing whether to write hokku or haiku, some new writers may prefer the wider and more indefinite boundaries offered by Gabriel’s spiritually-oriented haiku approach, which extends even, at times, to verses that depart greatly from the hokku practice of omitting that which “disturbs the mind.”

It could be said that Gabriel’s book continues the fundamental mistake made by writers on the subject of Japanese hokku and haiku in the 20th century — the error of offering beginners too little guidance regarding form and content and aesthetics, leaving it up to the student to decide those very important matters.  But on the other hand, he is writing in the modern haiku tradition that developed as a consequence of that lack of early guidance — and so it is not surprising he favors a more all-encompassing approach that leaves much (too much from the hokku perspective) up to the novice writer.

It is perhaps not surprising that Gabriel has a decided preference for the verses of Issa — verses with which the Western reader can easily identify, though they are also very popular among ordinary Japanese readers.  While that is partly a matter of taste, I think it also indicative of a lack of familiarity with the deeper aspects of the old aesthetics of Japanese hokku, which are largely absent in the book, and which were never really transmitted when the hokku came West and was re-interpreted there as what became modern haiku.

What can be said of the book is that its restoration of spirituality to haiku, and its strongly and frequently repeated advice that the composer of haiku should “disappear” — both of which are important to hokku as well — offer would-be writers of modern haiku a decided improvement over what is generally proffered to new learners by the more anarchic and self-absorbed trends so common today in the modern haiku community.