Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century.  Chief among them are these:

1.  The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th  century wrote “haiku”: 
They did not.  The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki.  Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku.  To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing.  So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.

2.  The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not.  
The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse.  Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter. 

The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles.  Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context.  Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.

Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:

  1.  Hokku is formulaic.
    That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku.  The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle.  So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics.  But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.

2.  In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true.  Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku.  For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex.  Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics.  That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse.  That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture.  Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.

What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so.  Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.”  It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.

In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics.  By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all.  It is the “quick and easy” choice.   However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.





Bashō wrote an interesting winter hokku that is often found mistranslated.  It is, in Japanese:
冬  枯  れ  や   世は一色に 風の音
Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto

The mistranslation usually comes in the first line:

Fuyu-gare ya

You already know, if you are a regular reader here, that the particle ya indicates a meditative pause.

Fuyu means “winter.”
Gare (kare) means something that is “withered,” “dead.”  Kare is the same word used in Bashō‘s autumn hokku about the crow on the withered (kare) branch.

Robert Hass translates fuyu-gare as “winter solitude,” but it does not mean that.  It is the bleakness, the emptiness of the withered winter landscape.

Blyth more closely translates it as “winter desolation,” rendering the hokku thus:

Winter desolation:
In a world of one colour
The sound of the wind.

We can translate it very literally as:

Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto
Winter-withering ya world wa one color in wind ‘s sound

Isshoku is just a variant pronunciation of hito iro — “one-color”

We could say,

Winter bleakness;
In a one-color world
The sound of the wind.

That would cover it rather well, because in English literature we already have Christina Rossetti’s remarkably similar lines,

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….

Oddly enough, while the version by Hass is bad as a translation (because it changes the meaning of fuyu-gare so drastically), it is not bad as a hokku.  “Winter solitude” would work as a first line with the rest of the verse.  But it is not what Bashō intended, and for that, we get closer with Blyth’s “winter desolation” or the similar “winter bleakness.”



shanshuiWhat do those Chinese characters mean?

Though I do not mention it often, some of you may know that I call my “school” of hokku writing (the kind of hokku I teach and advocate) the “Mountain Water” school.  And that is precisely what the two characters above mean.  The first means “mountain” and the second “water.”

Why did I choose this name in English?  I did so not only because I like it, but also because it is a way of recalling the very old heritage of the aesthetics embodied in the kind of hokku I teach, aesthetics which historically go back to old Japan and even to China centuries earlier.

The name “Mountain Water,” when seen in that long perspective, is very rich in meaning.

First, the combination of the two Chinese characters 山 水 (shān shuǐ) is the common term used for a landscape (as in landscape painting).  A landscape painting in China commonly is a painting of mountains (山) and water (水). 


By extension, 水 also means “river / rivers.”  So when we think of a Chinese landscape painting, we generally think of mountains and streams, waterfalls, pools, lakes, or rivers.  A secondary meaning of 山 水 is quite literally “mountain water,” that is, water of the mountains, like a spring bubbling up out of rocks in the hills.  And that makes the meaning of my hokku school name even deeper, because mountain water is usually fresh, clear, and pure.  That is how hokku should be.  Though it is a centuries-old form of verse, hokku we write today should be fresh and clear, pure and simple.

But the meaning goes even deeper than that.  You may recall that I have said one could call the kind of hokku I teach and advocate “Yin Yang” hokku, because of the importance of the two basic elements of Yin and Yang in writing and reading it.  In a Chinese landscape, the mountains (山) rising into the sky exemplify the Yang element, and the waters (水) falling from the hills or lying in pools and streams are the Yin element.  So the name “Mountain Water School” also signifies the importance of Yin and Yang in the hokku tradition, and in hokku as I teach it.

The Japanese hokku was very strongly influenced by the old literature of China, particularly the poetry of the Tang Dynasty.  And though the hokku form developed in Japan, its aesthetics can be traced back many centuries in China. And do not forget that traditionally, hokku in Japan was written in a combination of borrowed Chinese characters and native Japanese phonetic symbols.  Take for example the famous “Old Pond” hokku of Bashô.  Of the 11 symbols  in which it is written, seven are Chinese, and only four are Japanese phonetic symbols.

You will recall that the verse is:


The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

The word for water here (水) is the same character used to write “Mountain Water.”  It is pronounced mizu in the case of Bashô’s verse, and in other cases sui, which pronunciation is also borrowed from Chinese.

So now you know the origin of the name for the kind of hokku I teach — the “Mountain Water” school of hokku.

As an aside, if you are familiar with Japanese ink painting (which was borrowed from the Chinese), you may have heard it called suiboku.  Here is that term as written:

The first character, as you now know, is 水, “water” ( with the sui pronunciation in Japanese); the second character, 墨, pronounced boku in Japanese, is the Chinese character meaning “black ink.”  So a suiboku-ga is literally a ” water-black ink” painting.  And anyone who has ever practiced that art or watched it, knows that is precisely what it is — a painting done in ink made by grinding a black ink stick in water on an inkstone.



Some two months ago, I moved to a less busy neighborhood and a place with a tiny bit of gardening space.  One of the first things I did was to plant a couple of small hardy bananas, the kind known as Musa basjoo, which can survive the winters here.  The “basjoo” part comes from the Japanese name for the plant, and that in turn was where the hokku writer Bashō got his name.  He not only liked the beauty of the large, green leaves (as do I), but also felt a kinship with their fragility — the leaves are easily torn by the wind.


In many places on the Internet, one will find this verse (or a slight variation of it) attributed to Bashō:

Outside the window,
Evening rain is heard;
The banana leaf speaks of it first.

I am not sure where, precisely, this widespread but mistaken attribution to Bashō began.

Actually, however, the lines come from a brief Chinese poem by the Tang Dynasty writer Bai Juyi (白居易, also found as Po Chü-i), who lived from 772–846 c.e.

Here is my rather loose rendering:


An early cricket chirps and is silent;

The lamp flame dims, then brightens.

Evening rain has begun outside my window —

Announced by the pattering on the banana leaves.

Literally, the last two lines in the original mean that the rain is “first announced” by the banana leaves — but that of course means the pattering sound of the drops on the wide leaves is heard.

Now how did it come to be thought a hokku?  That we can tell.  In the first volume (Eastern Culture) of R. H. Blyth’s “Haiku” series (remember that Blyth unfortunately used the then-current term introduced by Shiki), he gives his translation of Bai Juyi’s poem:


A cricket chirps and is silent:
The guttering lamp sinks and flares up again.
Outside the window, evening rain is heard;
It is the banana plant that speaks of it first.

Then (this is on page 62), Blyth makes two hokku (which he calls  haiku) out of it:

A cricket chirps
And is silent;
The guttering lamp sinks.

Evening rain;
The bashō
Speaks of it first.

Blyth quite accurately calls verse #2 “the essence of the original poem.”

It is a good poem, whether in the Chinese original or as hokku #2.  But the hokku is not by Bashō.  It is R. H. Blyth’s “essence” of the Chinese poem by Bai Juyi.

Blyth’s making of the hokku from the Chinese verse is a good example for students of how to reduce an experience.  It is not that the hokku is better than the Chinese original; it is just that as hokku, it distills the experience to — as Blyth says — its essence.  And that is what hokku gives us:  the essence of any poetic experience.  So the Chinese poem is better as a Chinese poem, and the hokku version is better as a hokku.

It is rather difficult to find the original poem in Chinese online, so here it is for those of you who like to see originals:


Now, with my own banana trees newly in the ground, I can add my own related hokku:


Pattering on the leaves
Of the just-planted banana —
The first raindrops.



A very effective hokku by Bashō:


Waking suddenly;
A water pot burst
In the icy night.

I have added the “suddenly” (as Blyth also does in his translation) because it is implied by the event.  The jug has burst because of the frozen water expanding within it.

The hokku is effective not only because of the sensory sound of the bursting pottery jug, but also because it so well expresses the deep cold of a winter night.

Here’s the original:

Kame wareru   yoru  no kōri no   nezame kana
Pot    has-burst night ‘s ice ‘s      waking kana

Now for some “blog business”:

I have tallied reader responses to my question whether comments on this site should be private unless otherwise requested (the long-time policy), or whether all comments should be public unless requested to be kept private by the sender.

The overwhelming consensus of reader opinion was for a change to all comments being made public unless otherwise requested (the exceptions, of course, being spam, irrelevant comments, obscenities, etc.).

So, as of today, that is the new comments policy on this site.  All comments made on any posting, new or old, will from now on be posted as public comments, accessible through the “comments” link at the bottom of the relevant posting.

There will usually be an interval before the comments appear, because they will still go through moderation to sort out the exceptions mentioned above, but they will be posted as soon as I see the incoming comments.

Those who want a comment to be seen by my eyes only need only put the word “private” at the beginning of the comment, and it will not be made public.

I hope we will all be pleased by the results.






Today I will briefly discuss a rather well-known hokku that I talked about in an earlier posting.  My feeble excuse for this is that it is snowing where I am this morning, and there are crows out in it.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usually detested crow too snow ‘s morning kana

The usually detested crow too?  What does that mean?  The crow also is what?  As I mentioned in the earlier posting, Bashō leaves out a word that one is supposed to intuit, and that word in English could be “beautiful,” “attractive”  “appealing,” “striking,” etc. etc.

Though he was probably just expressing general public feelings in his time, I have never cared for calling the crow “detested,” or “hated,” or “hateful” as some translations have it.  There is something about the “detested” combined with implied “beautiful” (“beautiful” is actually used in some translations) that just does not seem quite right, though something detested can also be beautiful.

I think that what Bashō was feeling was something more like

A snowy morning;
Even the common crow

Becomes interesting.

Interesting, of course, because of the striking contrast between the whiteness of the snow and the deep black of the crow.  One could call that “beautiful,” but it seems like saying too much — which is perhaps why Bashō left an unspoken adjective up to the mind of the reader.





In the previous posting, I paraphrased R. H. Blyth’s definition of hokku: A non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

We can think of this as referring both to the initial experience of the writer and to the experience of the person reading the writer’s verse.

There is an old hokku by Bashō that will help in understanding:


So cool —
The wall against my feet;
A midday nap.

I have written before that for practical purposes and to avoid confusion, it is best not to think of this as poetry, but rather as the “seed of poetry.”  It is an experience put into simple words that when read, create a sensory-aesthetic experience in the mind of the reader, and THAT experience is the poetry.  It is not on the page, which only provides the seed that suddenly sprouts into life in the mind when read.  That is why I generally refer to hokku simply as “verse.”  If we call hokku poetry, people easily confuse it with all the ideas and characteristics they have picked up from Western poetry, and that baggage has contributed to the thorough misperception of hokku in the West and, incidentally to the rise of modern haiku as a verse form separate from traditional hokku.

When we say that hokku is a “non-intellectual sensory experience,” we mean that it is an experience of one or more of the five senses: seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing.  There is no thinking involved.  When you touch a wall with the soles of your feet on a hot day, the wall feels cool.  You do not have to think about it, or reason about it, or use it as a symbol for something, or make a metaphor or simile of it.  It is what it is, a sensory experience of coolness made pleasant by the fact that it is a hot day in summer.  So when I say there is “no thinking” in hokku, that is what I mean.  You don’t need to think to get the message.  You just experience it immediately through the senses, in this case the sense of touch.

And when I say that hokku is an experience “outside the conscious will” I mean that the experience of the coolness of the wall is not something you will into happening; it just happens.  You put your bare feet against the wall, and the wall feels cool.  The same happens when you read the verse.  You do not have to consciously will an experience to happen in your mind; it just happens when your read the simple words of the verse.

That is what Blyth means when he speaks of “Zen” in hokku.  He means precisely how this verse conveys its sensation, with

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

In hokku, nothing stands between the reader and the experience.  Look at this verse by Taigi:


A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

It is a very warm and drowsy day.  Lying down for a noon-time nap, the person slowly moves the fan back and forth to create a hint of  cool wind; but the heat and the drowsiness finally win out, and as the person falls asleep,

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

In this verse we have the heat of summer and how it affects humans.  We are talking about one particular human, but in doing so, we are talking about humans in general.  That is why we so easily “get” the verse, why we feel the warmth and the drowsiness of the day in the hand that stops moving.  The verse expresses what summer is and what humans are, and what humans in summer are.  It shows us, as I always say hokku does,

Nature, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

You will recall that all hokku are set in a particular season.  This is a summer hokku, so that is the primary setting.  The secondary setting is “A midday nap.”  And in the primary and secondary settings combined, we see what happens:

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

Hokku is just that simple.  There is no need to make it seem complicated or mysterious or difficult.  It only requires that the writer be open to the inherent poetry of sensory experience and to our intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All that is required of the reader is to put aside “thinking” for the moment and to simply experience the verse as it “opens” in the mind.



Hiya-hiyato  kabe wo fumaete hirune kana
Cold-feels    wall  on  tread     midday-nap kana

Hirune shite   te no ugokiyamu uchiwa kana
Midday-nap doing   hand ‘s moving-not fan kana