Many people are confused about just what hokku is because historically, it has differing levels with different qualities.

Hokku originated as the first verse of a kind of communal poetry game, so it is not suprising that there are many old hokku on a low quality level.  There is for example, the verse of Moritake:

落花枝にかへると見れば胡蝶哉 守武

Rak-ka eda ni kaeru to mireba kochō kana

A fallen flower
Returning to the branch?
Looking — a butterfly!

This is just a clever twist on an old comment by the Chinese Ch’an (Zen) teacher Baoji Xiujing, that became a Japanese folk saying:

Rakka eda ni kaerazu, hakyou futatabi terasazu
The fallen blossom doesn’t return to the branch; a broken mirror will not illuminate again.

And Sōkan wrote:

Tsuki ni e wo sashitaraba yoki uchiwa kana

If to the moon
A handle were attached —
What a good fan!

Now we may think this sort of “cleverness” in hokku went out with Bashō, but that did not at all happen.  In fact in the 1700s, Buson wrote this autumn verse:

Ichi gyō    no kari hayama ni   tsuki wo insu
One line   ‘s    wild-geese  foothills at  moon
wo seal

A line of wild geese;
Above the foothills,
The moon as seal.

Ichi gyō/ichigyō(一 )– “one line” calls to mind the vertically-written, single-line sayings — ichigyō mono –particularly Zen sayings — that were often painted on wall scrolls.

Though superior as poetry, Buson’s “line of wild geese” verse is very much like Sōkan’s verse.  Where Sōkan added a handle to the moon and made an uchiwa (a kind of roundish fan), Buson has turned a line of wild geese flying in the sky into a line of calligraphy, and has turned the moon above the foothills into a painter’s round signature seal to complete the scroll.  Both have used “cleverness” of imagination to make something in Nature into something made by humans.

Now one may find such verses interesting as a form of poetry because of their “cleverness,” but cleverness is not really a part of the best hokku.  In good hokku, geese are geese, not a line of calligraphy; the moon is the moon, not a fan or a seal on a painting.  In good hokku Nature is allowed to be what it is, undistorted by the cleverness of the writer.

Gakoku wrote (my loose translation) this spring verse:

Kasumi yori tokidoki amaru hokake-bune

Out of the mist
From time to time —
A sail appears.

In that, the mist is mist, the boat sail that appears now and then above the mist is a sail.  Each is what it is, nothing is made into or imagined to be or symbolizes something else.  Hokku at its best should not exhibit human cleverness, but rather should be a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature.





One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial.  Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses.  You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.

Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.

Shigururu ya   nezumi no wataru   koto no ue
Cold-rain ya   mouse   ‘s    crossing koto  ‘s on

Cold rain;
A mouse walks across
The koto.

Shigeruru  is winter rain falling, thus cold rain.  Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate.  A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.

This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside.  We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.

We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;

Winter rain;
A mouse creeps across
The koto.

That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k”  sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto.  That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.

Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin.  He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?”   But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question.  Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.

Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.





The most difficult aspect of hokku to teach is also the most important — the “spirit” or “atmosphere” or “aesthetic” of hokku.

The form of hokku is very easy and can be quickly learned.  But without the right spirit, the results — even if in perfect hokku form — will not really be a hokku.

Why do so many have trouble in learning the spirit of haiku?  Part of it is cultural.  We live in a society based heavily around the ego and the satisfaction of its whims, and consequently a very material culture.  We also live in a society increasingly separated from the natural world — from Nature and the seasons.

Hokku aesthetics, by contrast, are based on a spirit of poverty and simplicity.  In  hokku, poverty does not mean having no money or resources at all.  It means a life not based on acquisition of objects nor the endless accumulation of material wealth.  To write hokku, you should learn to be “poor in spirit.”  To be “poor in spirit” means to learn the value of living simply and without the need for many possessions.    And because hokku is all about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it is important to re-establish our connection with the natural world and the seasons — the seasons that our double-paned windows and central heating and air conditioning carefully keep out.

The fundamental principle of hokku is transience — impermanence — the inescapable fact that everything around us and within us is constantly changing.  Nothing in the world or in the universe remains the same.  We cannot hold on to any experience or to any moment of time because time will not stand still.  And we and everything around us are not so much nouns as verbs, because all is in a state of perpetual change and transformation.

That is not just the condition of Nature;  it is also the human condition — birth, growth, old age, and death.

Hokku sees everything as a part of this cycle.  We see the changes of human life reflected in the day, from morning to noon to afternoon, evening, and night.  We see the same changes in the seasons, from spring to summer to autumn and winter.

Because we live in constant change, we also know the feeling this impermanence gives us.  It is not exactly sadness, though sometimes it can be that.  It is the feeling we get on realizing that no pleasure will last, that because of impermanence all happiness is temporary, and cannot be grasped and held.  It is the feeling we get when spring passes, the feeling we get when an old friend moves to a distant town, or perhaps suddenly dies.  Everything and everyone we “have” in life will eventually be gone — and ourselves along with them.

That leads us to the next step in hokku — the de-emphasis of the “self,” the lack of importance of the ego.  In hokku we do not generally write about ourselves, our wishes, or our desires.  Instead, hokku is a very “selfless” form of verse.  When we do mention ourselves, we do it in the same objective way we would write about a crow on a trembling branch, or snow falling into a stream.  This gives us a perspective that takes us out of the everyday ego.

In everything I have said here, we can see that hokku is just an expression of the nature of existence as it was and is expressed in Buddhism, out of which hokku grew.  Buddhism teaches the three marks of existence — in Pali, Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta — loosely meaning unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and no permanent self.

The impermanence of all things means that existence will inevitably bring dissatisfaction.  We cannot hold on to anything that pleases us, and too often we are in contact with things or events that do not please us at all.  In addition, this “self” that is our constant obsession is just as impermanent as everything else.  It does not last.  We are not who we were as children, nor are we as we shall be in old age.  And whether one accepts the notion of rebirth or assumes consciousness ends in death, in either case the end of this life is the end of the person we think of as ourselves.  So the illusory “self” is just a process, an ongoing transformation like everything else in Nature.

When you begin to understand all of this — to see how inseparable one is from the rest of the ever-changing universe — one begins to get the spirit that is behind hokku.  Then one sees it is not just another form of poetry.  It is a kind of seeing into the nature of existence.  Hokku shows us the depth behind the most ordinary things and events.

Buson wrote:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

That simple verse is like an explosion of the growing Yang energy of spring, because all of those seeds — each one containing a minute life force — will begin to sprout with the warmth and wetness of spring.  In that verse we see the nature of spring — its character of fresh beginning of activity, of growth, of vitality — of change.   Note that all of that is not explained in the verse, which gives us only the essentials to light the fuse of feeling.  A hokku is the raw material of experience, and when we read it, that experience “explodes” into being within us.





In hokku, as said many times here, one looks for a harmony of the elements included.  But the technique used to create it varies.  Two main types are:

1.  Harmony of Similarity:
We find this in Chiyo-ni’s excellent verse that lets us feel the desolation and silence of winter:

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

The snow, the stillness — both express the deep Yin (cold and inactivity here) of the season.

2.  Harmony of contrast:
There is a verse by Issa that gives us the contrast between extreme cold (Yin) and extreme heat (Yang):

Scattering out
On the morning frost —
The blacksmith’s sparks.

The frost and the sparks are quite opposite, yet when joined in this winter verse they form a harmonious unity — fire and ice.  The blacksmith in the original is a nokaji (野鍛冶 )literally a “field” blacksmith — but the term means one who makes agricultural tools like scythes and hoes, etc.  That is too specific to convey in an English language hokku, and it is not really necessary to be so specific in translation.  We get the essential meaning of the verse as it stands in English.

There is a hokku by Buson from the opposite season — summer — that shows us a similar contrast of Yin and Yang, yet it has quite a different feeling because of the seasonal difference:

Clear water;
The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it.

The metal chisel becomes hot from the friction of cutting stone, so the mason places it in the flowing water to cool it.

The hokku of summer and those of winter have this in common — that those using harmony of contrast correctly often give a strong sensory impression, which in hokku is good.  It is a common effect that we all easily recognize, like coming in out of winter’s finger-numbing frost to a hot bowl of soup.



One of the first problems a new student of hokku encounters is the selection of material, and this question arises: What subject is worth making into a hokku?

The answer is that to make a hokku interesting, one must pick an interesting experience. But how do you recognize one? As the old saying goes, “That which interests is interesting.” If an experience does not interest you, does not catch your attention, it is unlikely to interest anyone else. But keep in mind that hokku is generally interested in small events that seem to have a significance we cannot quite put into words, and should not try.

What then makes an interesting experience in hokku? We can find out by looking at some good examples.

Buson wrote:


Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Why is that interesting? Because of the relationship between seeds and water and spring. Not only do we see and feel and hear the spring rain when we read it, be we also feel a kind of hidden energy in it, because we know the rain soaking into the bags of seeds will make them sprout. And sprouting seeds really make us feel the spring. We can almost sense the power in the seeds, ready to burst out in sprouts.

To make such a hokku, someone had to notice — had to pay attention to — the rain falling on the bags of seeds. A great part of writing hokku is simply paying attention to things that most people do not bother to notice because they think them of no importance. But hokku are all about such “unimportant” things that are nonetheless felt to have significance if one only pays attention.

I have written before that it is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see but think of no importance.  That is certainly true of a good hokku writer. If you do not notice and feel the significance in small things, it will be difficult for you to write hokku.

That principle applies even to Shiki, the fellow who, near the end of the 19th century, decided to call his hokku “haiku,” which later became the cause of much confusion. Here is what Shiki saw:


Turning to look
At the man who passed —
Only mist.

The interest here is in the quick feeling of surprise and puzzlement. The man was there just a moment ago, but now only mist is seen. This sense of someone disappearing into mist is felt to be somehow significant. If we try to explain why it feels significant, we lose the poetry. So in hokku we only present the experience, so that the reader may sense that odd feeling of significance in such a small event as well.

In both hokku we have looked at, there is the sense of seeing something in a different way, a way that feels new to us, a different perspective. In Buson’s verse, instead of stacks of dry seed bags, we see them in the rain, getting wet. In Shiki’s verse, instead of turning around to look at a person who passed and seeing him, we see only mist. It is such little differences of perspective, of things slightly out of the ordinary, that make us see the world in a fresh way. And it makes for fresh and interesting hokku as well. So when choosing a subject, look for things seen in a different way, from a different perspective.

Rofu wrote:


Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

There are lots of things to see on a beach at ebb tide. Most are rather ordinary. But then we see a crab scuttling along the wet sand, and suddenly pausing at the impression someone’s foot has left. In that pause we feel the crab’s hesitation and uncertainty, his suspicion of this out-of-the-ordinary depression in the sand.  Rofu has selected this out of everything else on the beach because it enables us to see the crab in a different way, from a different perspective — and we also see the footprint in a different way, from a “crab’s eye” view.

Ryōto wrote:


Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

Here the writer has again been paying attention to something that seems very unimportant on the surface, but nonetheless is felt to have unspoken significance. I have put it into the present tense because I like it that way; it seems more immediate and present.

Shiki wrote a similar verse:


Stepping onto the bridge,
The fish sink from sight;
The water of spring.


So the subjects appropriate for hokku are in general just ordinary things, written down in ordinary language. But they are ordinary things that when seen from a new or different or unusual perspective, give us a sense of unspoken significance.

Wakyu wrote:


At the sound
Of one jumping,
All the frogs jump in.

As an event in our modern, busy world, it does seem like much; but we feel the nature of frogs and their green and watery world in it. Hokku is often about the little things that, as Blyth says, we knew, but did not know we knew until we read the verse.

We could call hokku the verse form for people who pay attention.



Today it is grey and cold and raining where I am, so this slight variation on a winter hokku by Buson seems appropriate.  I can omit the seasonal heading because it is in the verse itself:

Lotuses withered,
The pond is bleak;
Winter rain.

The original is:

Hasu karete ike asamashiki shigure kana

Lotus withered pond miserable winter-rain kana

You may recall that kana was largely a kind of filler word used to pad out the 17 sound units customary in old hokku.  With punctuation and the greater freedom of English language hokku, we no longer need such padding.





I have mentioned before that in old Japanese hokku there is a term for staying shut up indoors during cold winter days.  It is fuyugomori, which R. H. Blyth translates as “winter seclusion.”  Yet Westerners may fail to grasp what is meant by that translation unless already familiar with hokku.  So it is rather an “in” term.


Some hokku that are interesting in Japanese are a challenge to try to fit into the English language.  There is, for example, this verse about winter seclusion by Buson.  Here is the original transliterated, and with a rather literal translation:

To ni inu no negaeru oto ya fuyugomori

Door at dog ‘s turning-over sound; winter-seclusion

The tricky thing is that the Japanese verb implies the dog is turning over while sleeping.  So if we just say what is happening in this hokku, we get something rather awkward:

At the door,
The sound of the sleeping dog turning over;
Winter seclusion.

Now obviously the second line is excessively long for hokku in English.  What can be done?  Well, we have to take the hokku completely out of the Japanese form and make it thoroughly English, and we could even using a rather informal expression for “seclusion,” like this:

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Holed up in winter.

That way we give the sound instead of actually using the word “sound.”

Or if we prefer the traditional translation of fuyugomori — which one familiar with hokku understands, we can just present the verse as

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Winter seclusion.

That actually has a bit better rhythm.

The verse — whether in Japanese or English — is effective in giving us the sense of the boring, drowsy, long passage of time indoors in the cold of winter (minus the noise of television, of course).  The monotonous silence is suddenly broken by the banging of the sleeping dog against the door as he rolls over.

It is little moments like this — little events that express the nature of the season — that hokku delights in.  And this emphasis on such little but expressive things is what makes hokku so very different from other verse forms, as does its focus on Nature and the seasons.