What would a Japanese of Bashōs  time think of modern hokku?

First, he or she would no doubt be surprised to find it written in a language other than Japanese.

Second, he would probably also be surprised to find us writing hokku only as independent verses, and not, at times, as the first verse in a linked verse sequence.  In his day it could have been both.

Third, in indicating the season of a verse, he would note the change from the complicated and unwieldy old “season word” system to a simple seasonal heading preceding the verse.

Fourth, he might notice the significant absence of the allegorical in hokku, because old hokku, particularly when used as the first of a series of linked verses, were often used in an allegorical way to greet the host or hostess of a gathering for writing “communal” linked verse, or for other purposes.  And with this, he might notice the significant  prevalence of objectivity in modern hokku rather than subjectivity, which was more prevalent in old hokku — particularly those written by women in those days.

Fifth, he might notice that modern hokku are written in three lines rather than one, though that would not be entirely new to him, because old hokku were often separated into two or three lines when they were written on fans, etc.

Sixth, he would probably note the paucity of allusions in modern hokku, given that old hokku frequently alluded to lines from other literature, from historical or mythological events, and so on.

An additional difference is that modern hokku places a stronger emphasis on hokku written from actual experience of an event, rather than from composition “out of one’s head,” which was very common in old hokku.

Modern hokku does differ in these respects from old Japanese hokku, but there is a good reason for all the differences.

The writing of modern “independent” hokku means that it is no longer a kind of poetry game or social composition event, as it was when practiced as linked verse.  The “season word” system was done away with because it made hokku too complex, and violates the principle of simplicity.  The allegorical or “double meaning” often found in old hokku was also dropped, because it lessens the focus by creating a second object in the mind.  Three lines are used because they provide an excellent format for hokku in English, making it not only visually pleasant but practical.  Allusion in hokku has generally been dropped because it requires not only a thorough literary knowledge but also complicates hokku, taking us away from its simplicity.

Writing from actual experience keeps us closer to Nature and its changes, and requires us to pay attention to things we might not ordinarily notice.

All of these differences return us to the essence of good hokku, which is to simply convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing context of the seasons.  Consequently needless complexities that obscure that simplicity and that clear purpose have been dropped, giving us modern hokku in English.

In old hokku, we might find such subjective verses as this one by Chiyo-ni (a female writer in the 1700s):

Plum blossom fragrance;
Where has she blown to —
The Snow Woman?

A “Snow Woman,” (Yuki Onna), in Japanese folklore, was a kind of uncanny spirit who appeared when it was snowing — somewhat like the “Snow Queen” in the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson.  If you have seen the Japanese movie Kwaidan, it has a segment with a Snow Woman.  As we can see,  Chiyo-ni’s verse takes us away from reality and into the imagination.  Chiyo-ni’s verse was intended to show us the transition from winter to spring.  Now that the plum is blossoming, she asks, what happened to the Snow Woman/the cold of winter?

But by contrast, this hokku by Chiyo-ni  would be acceptable as a very good modern hokku:

Picked up is moving;
Ebb tide.

That is also a spring verse, but here there is no imagination to distract from reality.  When the tide goes out and one picks up tiny shells, they begin to move, because the creatures in them are still alive.  This hokku gives us a strong impression of the experience, re-creating it within us.  We can see and feel the things moving in our hand.  It also conveys the sense of the growing active energy of spring.

By our standards, the first verse about the Snow Woman would not be acceptable as hokku, though it would fit the very loose and indistinct boundaries of modern haiku.  The second verse, however, makes a quite good example for teaching modern hokku.  Hokku should take us out of intellection and imagination and into Nature — to the experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  That is hokku at its best.







Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”


Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.



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 you could tell from the previous posting, we have entered the time of summer hokku.  There is an interesting verse written by the Buddhist nun Chiyo-ni:

Touched by the line
Of the fishing pole —
The summer moon.

This verse gives us a good lesson in how to read hokku.  As we know already, hokku deal with sensory experiences, not with surrealism.  So when Chiyo-ni tells us that the fishing line touches the moon, we use the “intuitive leap” that is often necessary in hokku to tell us that the moon is a reflection in the water.  There is the moon in the evening sky and the moon in the water, but in this hokku we are focused on the moon in the water.


Chiyo-ni’s verse mixes the “real” world — the world of fishing lines — with the illusory world — the moon that is only a reflection, and where the line touches the moon the two worlds meet.  It is that odd feeling of the intermingling of reality and illusion that helps give the poem its effect. It is something like the old tale of the Daoist Chuang-tsu’s awakening from dreaming he was a butterfly, then wondering if he is a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or now a butterfly dreaming he is a man.  It raises the whole issue of what is reality and what is illusion, but of course the hokku does not go that far.  It merely gives us the “seed” experience that turns to poetry in the mind.



For those who like to see the Japanese original transliterated:

Tsurizao no ito ni sawaru ya natsu no tsuki

Fishing-pole’s line at touching ya summer ‘s moon


In the previous posting I mentioned the “selflessness” of hokku — how the emphasis is generally (as it should be in hokku) on the experience, not on the writer. In hokku the writer does not draw attention to himself or herself. To do so is felt, by those who have absorbed hokku aesthetics, as too blatant, a failure of taste.

Here is an example — a winter verse by Etsujin:

The first snow;
After seeing it,
I washed my face.

The point of the verse is that the purity of the snow made the writer feel unclean, so he washed his face. R. H. Blyth quite correctly says of this verse, “This is one of those things that should not be said, like Chiyo and her borrowed water.”

For those of you who may not recall that verse, here it is (and notice that it feels a bit odd reading it out of season):

The morning glory
Has seized the well bucket;
Borrowing water.

The point of this verse is that the writer, seeing that a morning glory vine has twined around the handle of the well bucket, decides to borrow water from a neighbor instead of removing the vine from the bucket. People may say this shows both the writer’s tender heart and her aesthetic nature, and it may be true; but in revealing that, the writer takes us away from the morning glory to her “self.” It is not really about a well bucket seized by a morning glory, it is about the writer’s personal psychology in reaction to that, just as Etsujin’s verse is not about the first snow, it is about his personal psychology in reaction to it. Blyth points out that the problem here is that there is no “poetical” connection between the first part of the verse (the morning glory on the well-bucket) and the second (the writer’s reaction and her going to borrow water).

We can say the same of Etsujin’s verse. There is no “poetical connection” between seeing the first snow and going to wash one’s face. We jump from an experience of Nature to the writer’s personal psychology, just as we do in Chiyo-ni’s verse. This is a very subtle but also very important point.

In short, when a hokku moves from Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature to a writer’s personal psychology, we are leaving the proper realm of hokku.

To help you grasp this aesthetic point, here is a “selfless” winter verse by Bashō:

Waking suddenly;
Ice burst the water jug
In the night.

It would be better in English if rendered more simply and smoothly, for example:

Suddenly waking;
The water jug burst
In the icy night.

It is the writer’s personal experience, but because he does not move the focus from the event to his “poetically-unrelated” personal psychology, we not only become the experiencer of waking at the sudden bursting of a frozen water jug, but we also feel no bad taste in the mouth from “too much self” in the verse. The waking at the sudden noise happens naturally and has an immediate natural connection to the breaking of the pot, whereas Etsujin’s decision to go wash his face and Chiyo’s decision to leave the vine alone and go borrow water from a neighbor do not have that intimate, natural connection. We could say that any human would be likely to waken when startled by the crack of frozen water breaking a pot in the night, but not any human would decide to wash the face after seeing a first snowfall or would decide to go borrow water on finding one’s well bucket tangled with morning glory vine.

In modern haiku — a kind of mutated contemporary offshoot of the old hokku, created largely through a misperception of it in the 20th century — it is common for a writer to dwell on personal psychology. But that is modern haiku with its shotgun blast of widely varying standards, not hokku.  Hokku aesthetics are more subtle, more profound.

It is worth noting that the presence of the words “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine” are not always a guide to the too-obvious presence of “self” in hokku. It all depends on where the focus of the verse lies, and whether the reaction of the writer to an event is “poetically connected” to the event, or whether it takes us off into the writer’s personal psychology and so away from a “universal” (or nearly so) connection with the event.

This is all something you may not have given thought to previously, but it is very significant in the aesthetics of hokku. The concept may seem difficult at first, but if you read enough hokku, it becomes second nature to notice when there is too much “self,” too much personal psychology in a verse.

Here are the originals for those who like to see them:

Hatsuyuki wo mite kara kao wo arai-keri
First-snow wo seeing after face wo washed

Asagao ni tsurube torarete morai-mizu

Morning-glory by well-bucket seized borrow-water

Kame wareru yoru no kōri no nezame kana
Jug broken night’s ice ‘s waking kana



Un de le hokku hibernales le plus bones es iste, de Chiyo-ni:

In campo e montesmornpd
Nihil mova;
Le matino nivee.

Iste verso nobis mostra le character Yin del hiberno (movimento es Yang, immobilitate es Yin). Videmus anque le Yin de hiberno in le nive que copera le campos e montes (le nive frigide es anque Yin).

In iste hokku trovamus le silentio e frigor que si ben exprimen le natura del hiberno.

(Iste es un experimento.  Si tu eres un parlator de un lingua romance, potes leger lo?)


One of the best winter hokku is this, by Chiyo-ni:

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

This verse shows us the Yin character of winter (movement is Yang, stillness is Yin).  We see also the Yin of winter in the snow that covers the fields and mountains (the cold snow is also Yin).

In this hokku we find the silence and cold that so well express the nature of winter.


(As you can see, I am still experimenting with an auxiliary language that might enable more people to read this site.  I began some time ago with Interlingua, and have adopted some modifications to it from David Stark’s “Latino Moderne,” which seems to loosen it up a bit and give it greater poetic possibilities.  Of course I am a novice at this, so bear with me.



An English-language hokku is a verse of three lines, the middle line often — but not always — visually longer than the others.

English: Tide pools at Pillar Point at low tid...
Tide Pool

Chiy0-ni wrote a very effective spring hokku:

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

Notice that:

The first letter of each line is capitalized.

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

There are two parts, one long and one short:

Long:  Everything picked up is moving.
Short:  Ebb tide; 

The two parts of hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation (note the semicolon here):

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

The hokku ends with appropriate punctuation (note the period here).

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving

Follow these standards and you will have the accurate form of hokku — the container which holds the content, just as a shell holds a nut.

In hokku everyone follows the same form. That is because the form works excellently, is very appropriate, and has proved its worth. But equally important, it gives no occasion to bickering over form. It thus contributes importantly to a sense of community in hokku. We speak the same “language” of form, the form works superbly, and that enables us to concentrate on content.

Notice that the example verse has three elements in it:

1.  A setting:  Ebb tide

2.  A subject:  Everything picked up

3.  An action:  Is moving

Now let’s look at punctuation:

The great virtue and value of punctuation is that it guides the reader through the hokku smoothly and effortlessly, and without confusion. It enables very fine shades of pause and emphasis, very important in how we experience a hokku.

As a general guide, here is how to punctuate hokku:

A semicolon indicates a strong, definite pause. It is generally used to enable the reader to absorb the setting of a hokku, for example in presenting the setting before moving on to the rest:

The spring wind;

A dash is used to indicate a longer, more meditative and connective pause:

The spring wind —

It is typed as two hyphens.

One may also use ellipses for that purpose:

The spring wind …

A question mark is usually used to ask a question that in hokku is never answered:

The spring wind?

The exclamation mark is occasionally used; it indicates something surprising or unexpected:

A spring wind!

The comma indicates a very brief, connective pause. It is often found at the end of a line that begins with a preposition:

In the spring wind,

A hokku always ends with punctuation, whether a period (.) — which is the most common — or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!) very sparingly used, and also the seldom-used final ellipses (….).

That is hokku form in a nutshell.

As for length, we should not exceed the standard by much.  In English the standard is a pattern of 2/3/2 essential words. Essential words are those words essential for meaning, but not for grammatical correctness. For example, we have already seen the verse

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

Its essential words are:

Ebb (1) tide (2)

Everything (1) picked (2) up (3)

Is (1) moving (2)

So there are no non-essential words in this example.  Non-essential words (for length counting) are often words like “the,” “a,” “an,” etc.

Though 2/3/2 is the standard, it should not be seen as an inflexible pattern.  Flexibility is very important to English language hokku, because a thing in English may be as visually brief as the word “fly” or as long as the word “dragonfly,” so we must be sparing while not becoming too rigid. The standard of poverty, if followed, ensures that in hokku we use only a few simple, ordinary words, including only what is necessary for clarity and good grammar.  If you find that notion easier to work with than essential words, that is fine.

You can see that there is nothing peculiar about the appearance of hokku in English. It uses ordinary language, ordinary words, ordinary punctuation. And again that frees us to concentrate on content, because though form may make something appear to be a hokku visually, it is only the content that will make a real hokku.