Here is a waka by Jakuren (died 1202).  It is out of season, but it tells us something significant:

Sabishisa wa
Sono iro to shi mo

Maki tatsu yama no
Aki no yūgure

The color of it
Has no name.

Pines rise on the mountain
In the autumn dusk.

Some translate sabishisa as “loneliness,” but it is not quite that.  It is more the feeling of solitude amid a world of transience.  This transience — this impermanence of all things — ourselves included — is particularly felt in autumn, and we feel it most when alone.  So if you see sabishisa in that context, you will better understand it.





This is from my morning walk:

The autumn morning;
Fog and fallen leaves
And wild geese crying.   

Perhaps you noticed (it would be good if you did) that this — in its pattern — is much like that of the old hokku by Suiō:

The autumn night;
Dreams and snores
And crickets chirping.

The original of Suiō’s verse just said “crickets,” but in his translation, R. H. Blyth added the implied “chirping,” which indeed is better in English.

The various patterns possible in hokku make handy containers into which any appropriate content may be poured to make new hokku.  That is why I emphasize the importance of patterns — the study of how old hokku are assembled —  to those learning hokku.






An autumn hokku by Taigi:

Autumn begins;
The evening shower has become
A night of rain.

We feel the change of the season in the change from a temporary shower to prolonged rain.  We also feel the autumn reflected in the growing darkness of evening to night.

Hatsu-aki ya yūdachi nagabiku yoru no ame
Beginning autumn ya evening shower prolonged night’s rain





A hokku by Chora:


A windstorm;
Rising from the grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

We could also present it like this:

From the windblown grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

Notice what a strong sensory impression is made by this hokku:  we feel the strong wind, hear the loud rustling of the dark grasses in wild movement,  and rising very slowly out of them is the silent moon of autumn.  This interplay between the blowing grasses and the moon exemplifies the hokku technique called “harmony of contrast.”  It is the placing of two contrasting elements together in a verse that when joined, paradoxically give us as sense of unity and harmony.  On the one hand we have darkness and violent movement and sound, and on the other stillness and brightness.

Here is the original in transliteration:

Arashi fuku kusa no naka yori kyō no tsuki
Tempest blows  grass  ‘s midst out-of today  ‘s moon

And now a question to regular readers here.  I would like to know how many of you actually write hokku in English — not haiku, but the kind of hokku I present here.  From time to time I think about reviving a kind of online interactive hokku class.  Of course one could learn hokku from all the information I give on this site, but often people need interaction with a teacher and correction of errors to write it successfully.  So if you are learning to write hokku as I present it here, send me a message and let me know.  To do that, just click on the “Leave a Comment” link at the end of this posting.  I will keep all messages responding to this  question private.




In traditional hokku, dew was a subject for autumn.  The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote:


It is only water;
Safflower dew.

It looks one way when on the colorful safflower blossom with its “cosmetic” reputation, but when it spills from it, it goes back to being simply water.

I have noticed that a number of Internet sites seem confused about this verse — or rather about the flower involved.  When Blyth translated it, he did so as “rouge-flower,” and indeed that is technically correct.  In Japan the safflower has been used for centuries to make a red cosmetic.  But the word “rouge” has misled various people into thinking that it must be dew on a deep-red blossom, and that is not the case.  The safflower, in its natural state, is actually more yellow than red, though one may see ruddy hints near the base of the petals.  Through a special process, its 1% of red coloring is concentrated and made usable.

Because we in the West know the plant more through its use in cooking oil, we are likely to let that color the impression the verse makes on us, whereas in Japan the beni flower — benibana or beni no hana — has centuries of association with red dye and cosmetics valued by the upper classes.

Chiyo-ni’s verse is reminiscent of a verse from another season by Aon:


When night ends,
It becomes an insect —
The  firefly.

The essence of these verses is change.  In one circumstance the dew and the firely are one thing, but in another circumstance they are another, neither being better nor worse than the other.

Blyth emphasizes that from a “Zen” perspective, that is how to understand them.  One could read them as:

When it is spilled,
It becomes just plain water;
The dew on the safflower.


When night ends,
It becomes just an insect —
The firefly.

But the correct perspective — Blyth tells us — is to see things equally, whether the dew is on the safflower or off, whether the firefly is glowing by night or dull by day.

Was that the perspective of Chiyo-ni and Aon?  Perhaps not.

Here’s Chiyo-ni’s verse in transliteration:

koborete wa   tada no mizu nari   beni no tsuyu
Spilled wa ordinary’s water becomes safflower ‘s dew

And Aon’s:

Yo ga akete mushi ni naritaru hotaru kana
Night ga brightens insect to becomes firefly kana





As regular readers here know, I am not a big fan of the verses of Issa, but there are a few worthwhile examples among them.  Here is one:


The pine I planted
Has also become old.
The autumn evening.

I repeatedly stress that (unlike haiku) it is necessary to study how to write hokku, because it has definite standards and principles and characteristics that must be learned.  It is also necessary to learn how to read hokku.

The history of modern haiku, paradoxically,  is an illustration of that.  Modern haiku began through the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the old hokku.  Western writers read a few examples of hokku, and they focused on its superficial characteristics, without understanding its inherent aesthetics.  They read hokku without understanding what they were reading, and then went on to create modern haiku.  As students of hokku, however, we can see what they missed.

Issa’s verse is an autumn hokku.  That means it should express the season.  Of course it mentions autumn, but does it express it?

A student of hokku will know that autumn is the season of decreasing yang (active, warm) energy, and the increase of yin energy (passive, cool).  And that autumn, in human life, corresponds to old age.  And that in a day of 24 hours, autumn corresponds to late afternoon and evening.

A student will also know that at the heart of hokku aesthetics is impermanence — the knowledge that everything in this world is transient, nothing lasts.  That which is born must eventually age and die.

Knowing these things, let’s look at the hokku again:

The pine I planted
Has also become old.
The autumn evening.

In hokku we have the principle of internal reflection, where one element is “reflected” by other elements.  So in this verse we have

The aging of the pine;
The “autumn” of the day (evening)
The implied aging of the writer.

All of these things express declining yang and increasing yin, which is the essence of the season of autumn.  So the autumn evening is reflected in the aging of the pine and in the implied aging of the writer.  Everything in this verse is in harmony, speaking of age and impermanence.

There is also an additional cultural element, which is that in Japan and China the pine tree is an old symbol of age and longevity, but one need not know that to appreciate the verse in an English-language culture.  But one does have to understand how the elements of the hokku work together to express the nature of autumn, and how we see it in the pine and in ourselves.

Here is the verse in transliterated Japanese:

ware [waga ueshi matsu mo oi keri aki no kure
I                     planted pine too aged has autumn ‘s evening

I have noticed that one online modern haiku group has begun presenting a few member verses classified as “stand-alone hokku.”   As one might expect from the haiku site context, they exhibit neither the aesthetics of the hokku nor its correct form in English.  That seems to always be what happens when people attempt hokku without understanding its standards, principles, and characteristics — they just end up writing more modern haiku instead of hokku, no matter if they confusingly attach the title “hokku” to it.  Just calling a verse “hokku” does not make it so.  It must have the aesthetics and standards of a hokku, and those one must learn, whether the intent is to read or to write it.  Otherwise one just adds to the confusion.

By the way, the use of the term “stand-alone” in referring to hokku is largely modern haiku jargon.  A real hokku is a hokku whether it is presented in the context of linked verse, embedded in prose, or used independently.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that Masaoka Shiki invented the independent hokku (which he began calling “haiku”) near the beginning of the 20th century, but that is not true.  Hokku were often used as independent verses by Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century, and became quite common.