Here is my rather loose translation of a winter hokku by Yasui:

In all the whiteness,
Not one thing moves;
The frosty night.

Perhaps it reminds you of another winter hokku by Chiy0-ni:

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

In two days comes the Midwinter Solstice and the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  Then the days will slowly begin to grow longer. and the new cycle will begin.




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 when it was taught largely as the beginning part of the more complicated and communal practice of haikai no renga — the composing lined verses.

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.



One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with words by Christina Rossetti, set to wonderfully appropriate music by Gustav Holst.  Most of the words have specific religious content and are of little interest to me here.  But the first verse is very good as a winter poem, very evocative and very concrete, both characteristics often contributing to good poetry:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

One of the best things about the verse is its simplicity.  In the 19th century, people often preferred their poetry florid, and many came to expect such roundabout speech of poetry.  That is why so much of it is looked on as unappealing and out-of-date today.  Even the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whitter often went too far in that direction, as he does in his long winter poem Snowbound, which helps to explain why it is so seldom read now.  All too often Whittier strained the language to create a rhyme.  Nonetheless, some way into it we find these lines:

And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

That is Whittier — very uneven writing in which good lines mingle with language stretched too far.  In the segment just given, we could really dispense with all but these effective words:

No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

It is almost a hokku.  In fact it inevitably reminds me of one of the best winter hokku, by Hashin, though the image evoked is somewhat different:

No sky nor earth,
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

And I cannot resist adding to this one of very best hokku of Chiyo-ni:

In field and hill
Not one thing moves;
The snowy morning.

That is Chiyo-ni’s version of Whittier’s “universe of sky and snow.”  Her verse is particularly effective not only because of its simplicity, but because it reveals the nature of winter so very well — winter being the most yin season — so it is expressed superbly by whiteness, cold, inactivity and silence — and Chiyo has managed that here, far better than she tends to manage things in many of her other verses.

I want to finish up this little appreciation of cold and snow by adding an effective hokku by Chora:

The windy snow —
It blows about me
As I stand.

Personal pronouns are seldom used in hokku, but here “me” is fine, because each person becomes the “me,” and sees and feels the cold and whiteness of the snow blowing and whirling about.   In this verse there is only a universe of snow — above, below, and all around — much as in the excellent verse by Hashin.

For those of us raised in northern climes, Winter is frost and snow.  Without at least the first, winter does not seem like winter, and fortunate is the person who has the second as well, even if only for a day or two.  There is much poetry in both, whether one expresses it in hokku or in longer forms of verse — but to me the best verses are those which are very concrete and speak of things and actions — the “thing-event,” without the addition of superficial “poetry” by the writer.  That enables us to appreciate the poetry of the thing-event itself, the poetry of no poetry, which to me is the best poetry of all.

I hope you all are enjoying this Yuletide season.



We earlier saw that there are basically two different kinds of hokku — subjective hokku and objective hokku.  Subjective hokku are those in which the writer adds his own view or interpretation, his “thinking.”  Objective hokku are those that simply present an experience and let the reader experience it too.

I teach objective hokku, because to me, it is the “purest” kind, very appropriate for a contemplative lifestyle.  Just as we should not add “thinking” to our meditation, we also do not add it to our hokku.

It is not difficult to recognize the other kind, subjective hokku, however.  We need look no farther than Bashō to find numerous examples, some very well known:

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

“Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the “thinking” addition.

Ill on a journey;
Dreams run about
The withered fields.

“Dreams run about the withered fields” is the added “thinking”

Art’s beginning —
The rice planting songs
Of the interior.

“Art’s beginning” is the added “thinking.”

Did it cry itself
Utterly away?
A cicada shell.

“Did it cry itself utterly away?” is the added “thinking.”

But we also find in Bashō some quite good examples of objective hokku — those without added “thinking”:

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

On a withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Generally it is easy to recognize subjective hokku — hokku with “thinking” added.  But some are a bit tricky, for example, Chiyo-ni wrote:

The well bucket
Taken by the morning glory;
Borrowing water.

At first this would seem to be an objective verse, because Chiyo-ni is just stating “facts.”  But then we realize that the point of the verse is that she does not want to tear the morning glory vine away from the well bucket, and so she goes to borrow water from a neighbor.  That introduces a subjective element, and puts the writer of the verse front and center.  In hokku, however, we prefer that the writer get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  We do not want to know about Chiyo-ni’s delicate aesthetic sensibilities; we just want a sensory experience.

By contrast, here is a pleasantly objective verse by Chiyo-ni:

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

Rankō has an objective hokku, though it has a longer time span:

Withered reeds —
Day after day breaking off,
Floating away.

And of course in Issa we have the very obvious “thinking” of:

This dewdrop world —
A dewdrop world it is,
And yet….

In Onitsura ‘s hokku we find objective examples such as:

The leaping trout,
Clouds pass by.

But sometimes he is subjective, as in:

I have not yet
Taken off the Floating World;
The change of clothes.

The “floating world” is the “worldly” life.  “The change of clothes” signifies that time when one changes from cold-weather clothing to warm-weather clothing.  It is not difficult to see that “I have not yet taken off the Floating World” is Onitsura’s “thinking” addition, his added subjectivity.

In both reading and writing hokku, we should be increasingly able to recognize subjectivity, and to distinguish it from objectivity.  “Subjective” hokku are those people are likely to think of as more “poetic,” because people in the West are accustomed to subjective thinking in poetry.  But in hokku we look for sensory experience, and that requires greater aesthetic awareness to appreciate.  It demands more of reader and writer, because it offers us those experiences in which we perceive an unspoken significance, even though all we have is tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing — without added “thinking.”




We already know that a metaphor, simply speaking, is saying one thing is another.  And we know a simile is saying one thing is like another.  An allegory is “speaking otherwise than one seems to speak,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.  In simple terms that is “saying one thing, but meaning another.”  A symbol is “something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else,” as the same dictionary tells us.

Knowing all this, we are now prepared to take a look at two verses:

Shiragiku no   me ni tatete miru    chiri mo nashi
White-chrysanthemum ‘s eyes at raise look  dust even not

White chrysanthemums;
Lifting the eyes to look —
Not a speck of dust.

This verse was written as a greeting to Bashō’s hostess.  This was a common function of the hokku when used as the first verse of a series of linked verses (haikai no renga).

Botan shibe fukaku   wakeizuru hachi no   nagori kana
Peony pistils deep   separate-emerge  bee ‘s parting-reluctance kana

The bee emerges
From the peony pistils.

This verse was written as a parting verse for one of Bashō’s hosts.

Now it is immediately obvious that both of these verses were written for special occasions — the first as greeting, the second as parting — and so they fall into a particular class of hokku that we call “occasion” hokku (in the old haikai practice, a greeting verse could be the opening verse of a series of linked verses).

Long-time readers of this site will recall that we have talked about  “occasion” hokku before, explaining how they differ from regular hokku.

To understand the peculiar nature of “occasion” hokku, we must understand just what they are.  Keep in mind always the dictum that the best hokku (we are not talking now about bad hokku or the occasional exception here) are not symbols for anything, are not metaphors.  Instead, they make use of layers of associations.  They do not say one thing is another (metaphor), nor do they say one thing is like another (simile).  This is a matter difficult for some people to understand, because they are so accustomed to simile and metaphor in Western verse that they see it even where it does not exist.

There is an interesting yet very simple summer hokku written by Chine-jo (the -jo suffix tells us the writer is a woman).

Easily it glows —
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We could say that this verse has a double meaning, because it was written as Chine-jo’s death verse — but that is not entirely accurate.  To say that the verse is a metaphor for Chine-jo’s death and leave it at that would also be misleading, because the verse uses the old principle that in hokku, one small thing can hold the meaning of something much larger.  For example, we say that in hokku one leaf is all of autumn.

In this verse, the firefly’s glow going easily out expresses all such things in Nature, the fact that if the ego is not struggling against Nature, everything becomes “easy” in life and death, because the individual will dissolves into Nature’s will, as it is put in Canto III of Dante’s Paradiso:

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

Rather it is necessary to this blessed existence
To keep one’s self within the Divine will,
So that our wills may be one..

E ’n la sua volontate è nostra pace:

And in His will is our peace.”

That is the mind of Chine-jo, whose will has become one with the firefly, with Nature, so that

Easily it glows,
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We will often find hokku that, while having their own meaning, to be read as referring to nothing beyond themselves, are yet applied to events in life that are expressed through them.  We find them — as here — in death verses, in verses written for greetings and partings and other such occasions, which is why we call such hokku “occasion” hokku.

That brings us back to the earlier two examples — the white chrysanthemum and the emerging bee.  As “occasion” hokku, these have a double meaning.  The chrysanthemum applies to Bashō’s hostess, on one side; but on the other, it is simply a hokku about a chrysanthemum.  Similarly the emerging bee verse on one side is simply about that; on the other it applies to Bashō’s reluctant departure.  Chiyo-ni’s verse, on one side, is about human death; but on the other side, it is about the light of a firefly going out.

We must not minimize or subordinate either meaning in occasion hokku, but neither should we confuse them simply as allegory or metaphor by saying:  “This says A, but it means B.”  The correct answer is, “This means A and it means B.  Sometimes we will want to read it as A, but for this particular occasion and purpose, it means B.”  Half of the dual function of an occasional verse is, in the words of the O.E.D., speaking otherwise than one seems to speak, which is the definition of allegory; and Bashō quite obviously did, for particular occasions, compose hokku in which he was doing so, as did other composers of such verses.  But we must not forget the non-occasion use of the same hokku, when the original occasion has passed and the hokku still exists and must be appreciated not as allegory but for itself alone.

The solution to the matter lies in the difference between subordination and equality.  If we say, for example, that the verse about the spotless chrysanthemum is a metaphor, or an allegory, or a symbol for Bashō’s hostess, but fail to point out that the verse must also function perfectly as a hokku completely on its own and independent of that allegorical use, then we are subordinating the “ordinary” meaning of the hokku to the allegorical meaning.  If a hokku is strong in its allegorical significance, but weak independent of allegory, then it fails as good hokku.

An “occasion” hokku must be able to function equally well in both its application as “allegory” and in non-occasion, non-allegorical use — at its own obvious “face value,” so to speak.

It is critical when writing occasion hokku that we do not cross the line into making them meaningful only when applied to the event, in which case they would be mere allegories.  All too often the old writers of hokku — particularly those used as the first verse of haikai-no-renga did this.   Instead, they must be fully strong within and as themselves — like the “firefly” verse of Chine-jo — and yet fully expressive of the occasion for which they are written — as we also find in that verse.

Having said all this, what then, do we do with the occasional old hokku that does use metaphor in some way?  We find, for example, Bashō’s autumn hokku:

Yuku aki ya   te o hirogetaru   kuri no iga
Going autumn
ya hands o opened chestnut’s bur

Autumn departing;
With open hands —
The chestnut burs.

Here, in a greeting verse written for a linked-verse-composing party, Bashō is apparently referring to the mature, opened halves of the chestnut bur as “palms” (he actually says “hands” but it is assumed that the means the halves have opened like the hollowed palms of two hands).

The answer is that we do nothing at all.  referring back to the first part of this article, you will recall I said that the best old Japanese hokku do not use obvious metaphor or simile.  And this rather mediocre verse is no exception to that rule.

In our practice of hokku we do not use such verses as models precisely because the use of metaphor or simile detracts from what we want to achieve in the kind of hokku I teach.  A metaphor or simile in verse is essentially a split image, requiring the reader to visualize two different things, such as the chestnut bur halves and the opened palms in the verse by Bashō.  But in hokku we want the focus undivided, direct and strong.

To summarize then:

1.  The best old hokku (and of course good modern hokku) do not use metaphor or simile.

2.  Some old hokku applied to certain occasions such as greeting, parting, and death had the ability to function on two different planes of meaning; one function approximates that known in English as allegorical; the other function was entirely non-allegorical; neither function is subordinated to the other in the best hokku, making such a verse non-allegorical (and non-metaphorical) in the common English sense of the word, which requires the subordination of one function to the other.

Do you still find all of this somewhat confusing?  No problem.  Just let the academics bicker pointlessly over it, but remember not to use metaphor or simile or allegory in your hokku, with the possible exception of the double function of “occasion” hokku as explained above — if from time to time you may feel moved to write an “occasion” hokku.  If you do not feel so moved, you may ignore them entirely.



What I like to call the “old style” hokku — meaning the best hokku in the period before Onitsura and Bashō — often, as we have seen in the hokku of Sōgi, combine two things and then add a third to unite them all in harmony.

Here is such a verse by Sōgi:

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

The later technique however — which we most often use — is somewhat different.  Instead of three rather equal-seeming things, as in Sōgi, we get more of a sense of two things combined, or rather a subject-action and then another subject that completes, as in this verse by Shōha:

A boy
Getting a dog to run;
The summer moon.

This kind of hokku is quite familiar to us.  We know it as the “standard” hokku, which uses the setting, subject, action pattern.  In Shōha’s verse it manifests like this:

A boy (subject)
Getting a dog to run; (action)
The summer moon. (setting)

Remember that the setting is usually the “large” or “encompassing” part of the hokku.

Bashō wrote

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

In that verse the subject is the octopus traps.  The action is the fleeting dreams, and the setting, again, is the “large” or “encompassing” element, the summer moon.  One can see from this that we need not align setting, subject and action rigidly.  In hokku they are fluid, and can change position.

The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote,

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

This is one of those verses requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, who will see that the line of the fishing pole is touching the summer moon reflected in the water.  Speaking loosely, we could say that the summer moon is the setting, the line of the fishing pole is the subject, and “touched by” is the action.  But of course here the summer moon functions as both setting and as primary subject.  That again should alert the reader that in composing, we need not be too rigid in our categories and arrangements.

But there is a bit more to say about Chiyo-ni’s verse.  In hokku aesthetics, a sense of transience is very important.  Those who created and practiced hokku were very aware that life is short and all human endeavors fleeting.  And they were very aware that the world as we see it is transitory and uncertain, like the reflection of the moon in a summer river.  That feeling is very important to hokku because it is a part of life.

Its presence in hokku comes from the Buddhist teaching of anicca —impermanence.  The three “seals” of existence are dukkha — the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of things; anicca — the un-lastingness of things; and anatta — the lack of a real self in what we customarily regard as our “self.”  In spiritual literature life is often compared to a dream from which only those who sincerely devote themselves to the practice of spiritual “cultivation” — meditation and right action — are likely to awake.  The moon in Buddhist literature is often a symbol for enlightenment.  But in hokku things are not symbols or metaphors for other things.  Instead all of these associations “soak into” hokku and influence how they affect us.

It is all in keeping with the old lines from the Forest of Zen Sayings:

Scoop up water, and the moon is in your hands;
Handle flowers, and the scent soaks into your garments.

That is exactly what gave rise to hokku originally.  The culture of Japan was permeated with Buddhist thought, and just as the scent of flowers soaks into one’s garments, so the fragrance of Buddhist spirituality soaked into hokku.  And that was true even in writers of hokku who were not particularly spiritual.  It is this underlying spiritual attitude toward life that made and still makes hokku what it was and is.



Now back to spring….

Rofu wrote an interesting verse set in the spring:

Ashiato wo    kani no ayashimu    shiohi kana
Foot-step wo crab ‘s suspicion     ebb-tide kana

If one wants a good, brief look at how very different Japanese hokku looked from English language hokku, this a good example.  Essentially and very literally, what this verse says is:

At the footstep, crab’s suspicion, ebb tide.

One would not suspect that of being anything remotely resembling verse, were it not for the fact that the original has the standard 5-7-5 phonetic units measure characteristic of Japanese verse, which relies in its traditional manifestations on combinations of lines of five or seven units.

In English, however, we must present it a bit differently:

The crab
Is suspicious of the footprint;
Ebb tide.

“Footprint” in the original, is ashi-ato, literally “foot-trace.”  We have already encountered the word ato in my discussion of Bashō’s “Summer grasses” hokku, where it referred to what remained behind.  Here what remains is an ashiato, a footprint.

The crab, scuttling along the sand at low tide, comes to this vast depression — something out of the ordinary, and therefore suspicious.  He pauses in uncertainty.

The whole point of this verse is that the reader becomes one with the suspicious crab.  We feel his hesitation and uncertainty on coming across the strange imprint in the sand.

We are accustomed to having animals and other creatures anthropomorphized, made to look and behave like humans.  Here the reader has the opportunity to go the other way — to see things from the crab point of view.

Verses about the ebb tide are traditionally spring verses in Japan.  The two best of such verses are this one and the one we have already seen, Chiyo-ni’s

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

The difference in Japanese is that the latter verse uses the term shiohi gata — “the ebb tide beach” in the original, while the former uses just shiohi — “ebb tide.”

Aesthetically Chiyo-ni’s verse is another of those studies in contrasts.  We have the weakening energy of the receding tide (Yin) yet within that environment, we find things that appear lifeless (Yin) are indeed very much alive (Yang), as they wiggle and move in the hand.



It is a mistake to think that I present old hokku here simply to translate them into English.  My ultimate purpose in doing so is to teach readers how to write new and original hokku in English, and one of the best ways to do this is to show them not only how old hokku were written, but also how to put them into English-language form.

Chiyo-ni wrote:

Hirou mono    mina ugoku nari   shiohigata
Picked-up things all moving are  tide-ebb-beach

Things picked up
Are all moving;
The ebb-tide beach.

Everything in the Japanese version is there, but I prefer a shortened and re-arranged version that demands slightly more of the reader:

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

That verse flows more smoothly, and seems as though written originally in English.  And that is how our verse should be; they should be English-language hokku, not adaptations of Japanese form and usage.

We can say then that English-language hokku preserves the aesthetics and techniques of old Japanese hokku, but makes them thoroughly American or British or Australian, etc.   We should never view hokku in English as a kind of cultural outpost of old Japan (and certainly not of modern Japan); instead our hokku should reflect our own country and environment.

That does not mean, however, that if we live in a busy city we should write hokku about subways or elevators or taxis.  That would violate the Nature-centeredness of hokku.  What it means is that our hokku should be in keeping with the language and the natural environment of the place in which we live.  Living in a busy city is simply not conducive to writing hokku.  Living in the country is far better, or even in a small town where people still have yards and gardens and nearby woodlands and streams.  That is just a fact of hokku.

People in modern haiku often complain about this, saying that hokku is simply not attuned to the modern world.  That is not true.  Hokku is always attuned to the present world, but it is not attuned to present human technology, because a technological lifestyle really has nothing to do with hokku.  Imagine Henry David Thoreau living in the heart of a big city.  He would have been a fish out of water.  He would have had to make trips to the countryside to nourish his spirit, to find green spaces, clean waters, and trees.

The fact that hokku is not attuned to a modern, technological lifestyle is not a defect in hokku; it is a defect in modern life.  That is why we do not (as people in modern haiku do) adjust hokku to fit our lifestyle; instead we adjust our lifestyle to fit hokku.



Hashin wrote a winter hokku that has always been a favorite:

Ten mo chi mo    nashi ni yuki no     furishikiri
Sky too  earth too    are-not at snow ‘s    falling-ceaselessly

No sky, no earth;
The ceaseless falling
Of snow.

Or we could translate it like this:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

The latter inserts a word (as does Blyth) not found in the original — “only,” but it conveys the meaning well and is very euphonic.

Rather literally, the verse reads:

With no heaven and earth being, snow falls ceaselessly.

That means the writer sees no sky, no earth, only snow falling ceaselessly all around.  Looking up there is falling snow; looking down there is falling snow.  The writer is in a falling-snow universe where sky and earth have disappeared.  This is a a remarkably effective, wintry verse.

Jōso wrote a hokku about sleet.  Sleet traditionally is a mixture of snow and snow that has melted into rain.  It is not the “ice pellets” of American weathermen, which ordinarily we would just call frozen rain.  Jōso’s verse is impossible to translate literally into English, and we must look at it to see why:

Sabishisa no  soko     nukete   furu mizore kana
loneliness ‘s  bottom  fallen-out  falling sleet kana

Soko nukete, “bottom fallen out”  is an expression used in Zen of a moment of enlightenment.  Imagine a bucket filled with water.  Suddenly, the bottom of the bucket gives way, and all the water falls out.  That is the moment when customary conceptions and illusions and attachments, the fixed ways of seeing the world, suddenly fall away and there is direct perception with no distinction between perceiver and perceived, no intellection obstructing.

But “bottom fallen out” means nothing in the context of the rest of this hokku if translated into English, so we must find some other way of transmitting its effect.  This is problematic, because simply using a single word like “profound” leaves us with a rather skimpy attempt at hokku:

Profound loneliness;
Sleet falling.

Not only is that too short, it is also remarkably bland, so we shall have to do better.

Let’s look at how Blyth translated it:

Sleet falling:
Fathomless, infinite

A very brave attempt!   But to really understand what Jōsō is saying, we have to turn to the principles of hokku.  Regular readers here will recall that hokku do not use metaphors. You will sometimes find modern haiku writers saying they do, but that is simply because they know nothing about hokku aesthetics, and misinterpret what they are seeing.  Instead, hokku use the more subtle technique of mutual reflection, in which the condition or character of one thing is reflected in the condition or character of another.  This too must not be misunderstood, however.

If we speak, for example, of someone washing daikon radishes in winter, we find the “yin” nature of winter reflected in the whiteness of the radishes and the cold water.  This does not mean either radish or water is a metaphor for winter or a symbol of winter.  It means instead that the character of winter is manifested both in the whiteness of the radishes and the coldness of the water.  No one of the elements is greater or lesser than the other.  The daikon radish is winter, winter is the daikon radish.  The cold water is winter, winter is the cold water.  The coldness of the water is the whiteness of the radish.  The whiteness of the radish is the coldness of the water.  Each is reflected in the other.

Knowing this, we can see what Blyth intended in his translation.  It is not merely that sleet is falling, and this makes the writer very lonely.  Instead it is that there is infinite, bottomless loneliness in the writer; and outside there is the falling of the cold sleet.  We see the character of the the infinite, bottomless loneliness in the falling sleet, and we see the falling sleet in the infinite, bottomless loneliness.

It is a mistake, therefore, to understand this verse as meaning simply that Jōso is profoundly lonely, and sleet is falling through this loneliness.  Instead, what it means is that the inner state of the writer is reflected in the outer falling of the sleet, and the outer falling of the sleet is reflected in the inner state of the writer.  They are simultanously the same and yet different, they are simultaneously inside and outside and yet there is no inside or outside.  All are one experience.

One can see there is more to this verse than is apparent to someone who does not understand the aesthetics of hokku.  Personally, I would change Blyth’s translation slightly, like this:

Sleet falling;
Fathomless, infinite

One can be alone without being lonely.  And one can be lonely without being alone.  But aloneness has a somewhat different significance, because it takes away the aspect of needing or desiring another presence.  Instead it accepts the fact of being alone for what it is, without emotional protest.  That pure aloneness is reflected in the falling of the sleet, and the falling of the sleet is reflected in that bottomless aloneness.

We should understand Jōsō’s verse, then, not as an expression of lonely, over-emotional “needyness,” but rather as a manifestation of the mind from which all accumulated concepts and desires have dropped away.

We see this concept reflected in a verse on one of the block prints of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.  It shows the female hokku writer Chiyo-ni.  The bottom has fallen out of her bucket, which lies on the ground with all the water that had been contained in it flowing away.  A full moon is in the sky.  The verse ends by telling us that with the water no longer in the the bucket, tsuki mo yadorazu — the moon has no place to dwell.

You will recall that I often speak of the hokku writer as one who must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may be reflected in the clear mirror of the mind.  This verse about Chiyo-ni goes beyond that to the stage reached by the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.

Those of you who know the traditional history of Zen will recall that centuries ago, the master of a monastery in China, the Fifth Patriarch, said that he would pass his office on to whoever in the monastery showed the deepest understanding of “Ch’an,” which is the Chinese pronunciation of what the Japanese call “Zen.”  The most respected student wrote a verse by night — a gatha — where it would be seen by all.  In it he said that the mind is a clear mirror, and that one should be careful to wipe it all the time so that it may be free of dust.  That is quite true, and it is true of hokku as well.

But there was a rather shabby fellow working in the kitchen, an illiterate nobody named Hui Neng.  When someone read to him what the verse of the chief disciple said, he composed his own verse, and had someone write and post it for him by night, out where all could see it.

The next morning the monks were shocked to read a verse that seemed to directly contradict the first verse.  In it was said that there never was a clear mirror, and that from the beginning not one thing exists, so where is there dust to cling to such an illusory mirror?

That is what we see in Chiyo-ni and her bucket with its bottom fallen out.



Winter is at the door.  In some places it has already come.  So it is time to begin considering what a winter hokku should be.

Remember the Yin and Yang of the seasons, the interplay of the two universal forces.  Yang is the active force — light, warmth, movement; Yin is the passive force — darkness, cold, stillness.  In the wheel of the year, spring is diminishing Yin and growing Yang.  Yang grows in spring until it manifests as summer, in which Yang reaches its maximum and Yin its minimum.  And as you will remember, when one of these elements reaches its maximum, it begins to change into its opposite.  So as we pass the very height of summer, Yin begins to grow again, as Yang begins to decline.  Autumn is growing Yin and declining Yang, and at last we again reach winter, which brings us Yin at its deepest, and Yang at its weakest.

Added to that, as writers of hokku we must remember that these two forces — Yin and Yang — also manifest in the changes of day and night.  Morning — like spring — is growing Yang and diminishing Yin.  Midday, like summer, brings Yang to its maximum, and then it begins to decline into the growing Yin of afternoon.  This continues through evening until we reach the depths of night, in which Yin is at its maximum, Yang at its minimum.

Did you ever wonder why it is — traditionally — that some people in some places and circumstances may see ghosts at night?  It is because night is the most Yin time, and ghosts are considered part of the Yin world.

We see that Yang and Yin apply to everything in similar ways.  In human life, birth and childhood are growing Yang; as young adults, humans reach their most Yang period,  and then the decline of growing Yin begins — people start to age and begin — like Nature — to wither.  We can compare that time to late summer and autumn in the year, to afternoon and evening in the day.  And finally comes maximum Yin, which is the deepest part of night in the daily cycle — the ending of life in the human cycle — and in the seasons it is winter with its cold and stillness, when the energy of plants has returned to root and buried seed, until the growing Yang of spring brings the energies of life forth again.

Snows are already falling in the high country.  Frost has come to many regions.  The energies of Nature are retreating — Yin is growing, Yang declining.

Some might think that because Yin is the predominant element of winter, that everything in winter hokku should be cold, still, and silent.  That is a mistake.  Keep in mind that Yin and Yang never separate, even when one is at its extreme.  So even in the Yin cold and stillness of winter we will often see Yang manifesting in some way, and it is this interplay of the elements — the predominant against the weaker — that gives us hokku.

An excellent example is this very powerful verse by Gyōdai:

Akatsuki ya   kujira no hoeru   shimo no umi.
Dawn     ya whale  ‘s  roaring  frost ‘s sea.

Whales roaring
In the frosty sea.

That is a rather literal version — but effective.  In English, however, whales do not “roar,” so we would say

Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

Anyone who thinks that hokku are always about the very small and the very close up will see from Gyōdai’s hokku that that is not always so.  But let’s take a closer look at the verse and see how it manifests not only winter, but the interplay of Yin and Yang.

Predominant, of course, is the force of the season — Yin.  We find that in the words the frosty sea.

The hokku takes place at dawn, when growing Yang first becomes visible.  And of course the blowing and spouting of the whales, with its force and great noise, is also Yang.  But the overall feeling of the verse is very, very cold.  So we see a great and powerful Yang force — the whales — but in spite of their size and power, they are just a tiny element amid the immensity of the Yin of winter.

Structurally, it is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.  We could diagram it like this:

Dawn;  (setting)
Whales (subject)
Spouting in the frosty sea (action)

You will notice, of course, that really there are two elements that make up the overall setting of the verse — dawn and the frosty sea.  Such a secondary setting incorporated as part of the action is very common in hokku.

Notice the selflessness of the verse.  There is no human anywhere in sight.  All we see is the profound power of Nature — its immense cold, and the Yang of the whale who manages to live in such cold amid the frosty waves.

That last characteristic is something to remember, because things that live in extreme environments tend to manifest just the opposite.  That is why here, amid the great cold of the frosty sea — we find the powerful Yang energy of the whale.  It must be strong enough to resist the opposite element to flourish in it.

That, of course, explains why traditionally, if one was looking for the most powerful ginseng roots to use as medicine, one searched for them in the frozen mountains of North Korea.  Growing in such a Yin environment gives the root great Yang energy.  It is the same principle in Gyōdai’s hokku.

Winter hokku, then, will manifest the season in an interplay of forces.  In some we may see almost only Yin, for example in Chiyo-ni’s verse:

No ni yama ni   ugoku mono nashi   yuki no asa
Field at  mountain at   moving thing is-not  snow ‘s morning

In fields and mountains
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

That is a very Yin verse.  We see the fields and hills covered in snow, and amid all that chilly, white immensity, not one thing is moving.  That is the stillness of winter.  We see what a contrast that is with the spouting, plunging whales and blowing, frosty waves of Gyōdai’s verse.  But notice that even in the Yin silence and stillness of Chiyo-ni’s hokku, there is the Yang element of light and morning.  In such things we see the interplay of Yin and Yang, with their respective strengths varying from verse to verse.

It is important to recall that it is Yin that brings out the meaning of Yang, and Yang that brings out the meaning of Yin.  That is easy to see.  When do we most appreciate the soft warmth of a thick blanket?  In the Yin of winter.  And when do we most appreciate the heat and bright crackle of a wood fire?  Again, in the cold of winter.

Modern people are often very insulated from the seasons, in great contrast to our ancestors.  Remember the Little House on the Prairie books of our childhood?  They show us what it is like to live closer to Nature and in greater awareness of it.  Winter has great significance when we live close to it.  If you have never read that series, I suggest you do so, because if you are living removed from Nature, it will help to remind you what a life close to the seasons is like.  We cannot write hokku if we do not experience the seasons and their changes.

It is precisely for this reason that R. H. Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write this kind of verse, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.  That is really a kind of Jungian statement.  Blyth meant that we must live in circumstances in which we cannot avoid the effects of the changing seasons leaking into our lives and our consciousness.  Without that — shut away in perfectly insulated, temperature-controlled environments — how can we experience Nature and the changes of the seasons enough to write about them in a manner that really expresses them?

Let’s look again at Gyōdai’s verse:

Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

That is the Moby-Dick of hokku.  It is just as dark and powerful in its own way as the novel of Herman Melville — said to be the greatest American novel.  Did you know that Melville actually went to sea for long periods of time in the 19th century, and experienced the kind of environment about which he wrote?  Can you imagine Moby-Dick having been written by someone who lived all his life in a comfy apartment in the midst of a large city?  Of course not.  How then can we expect to write effective hokku — verses that manifest the character of the season — if we are not even exposed to the seasons and their transformations?

I am not, of course, telling everyone who lives in a city apartment to sign up on a ship or to take a trek to the Arctic.  But it is very important for anyone who wants to write hokku to become familiar with its primary subject matter — Nature and the seasons.  Do that in whatever way you can, whether it is visiting parks in the city or making periodic trips to the countryside to renew and refresh your sensibilities.

Winter is a very good time for hokku because it is a season of extremes, and thus the season can potentially have a very strong effect on us.  The result can be as good as the “whale” hokku of Gyōdai, or as good as the “snowy stillness” hokku of Chiyo-ni — if we learn to step aside and let Nature express itself — let Nature speak — through our verses.



In Western poetry the “self” plays a very large role.  In Objective Hokku, however, the self is not only minimized, but often does not appear at all.  That is because in Objective Hokku the writer is the mirror of Nature.  The self is like dust that obscures that mirror; the more of self, the less Nature can be clearly reflected.

In hokku the writer is to get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  There are many other kinds of verse in which the writer can express the self in any way desired; but in hokku the self is generally an obstacle, not a help.

That is why in Objective hokku we very seldom use the words “I,” “me,” and “my.”  In fact they are commonly only used when not using them would be awkward or too vague.

When the self does appear in hokku, it is treated as we would treat anything else in Nature, the same way we write about a fox, or a dove, or a tree — objectively.

Because of this, the aesthetics of Objective Hokku frown on verses that bring the writer too much to the foreground, drawing the reader’s attention.

In this regard, R. H. Blyth very appropriately quotes Robert Frost’s A Tuft of Flowers:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared,
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

Contrast that with much of Western poetry, which intends to draw our attention to the writer — his or her thoughts, emotions, hopes, fears, desires, complaints, etc. etc. etc.

Knowing all this, we look at a hokku such as Chiyo-ni’s

The well bucket
Seized by a morning glory;
Borrowing water.

This is a very popular verse, but unfortunately it draws our attention to the writer’s sensitive aestheticism, so finely tuned that instead of disturbing the morning glory that has entwined the bucket, she will go to borrow water from a neighbor.  This is not quite as precious as Oscar Wilde’s remark that he found it harder and harder every day to live up to his blue china, but the effect is perilously close.

And try as we might, that is the effect we get from the verse, because as Blyth points out, beyond that there is really nothing else — no genuine poetic connection between the  green tendrils entwining the bucket and Chiyo-ni going next door to borrow a bucket of water.  And overt aestheticism is not at home in hokku.

What we learn from all this is to avoid bringing the self to the foreground in Objective Hokku, but instead to either keep it out entirely or treat it objectively when it does appear.   Our approach as writers should be like that of the mower — acting with no intent to draw one thought of the reader to us.  That is in keeping with the principle of selflessness in hokku.

There is a senryu satirizing Chiyl-ni’s hokku:

Yokutoshi wa   Chiyo idobata wo satte ue

The next year,
Chiyo planted farther
From the well.