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.



A repeat of one of my favorite old winter hokku, by Hashin — clear, direct, simple, and very effective:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

For those who may not have experienced a good snowstorm, this hokku is an excellent description. The boundaries of sky and ground disappear, and one feels as though standing in the midst of a vast, cold universe of falling snow. One even has the sensation of floating upward while standing still, due to the motion of the snow.

Often people try to use too many words in writing hokku, try to say too much when, as the saying goes, “less is more.” Remember that one of the characteristics of hokku is simplicity.

Here is the transliterated original and a rather literal translation:

Ten mo chi mo nashi ni yuki no furishikeri

Heaven too earth too are-not at snow’s falling-incessantly



Bashō wrote two very similar winter hokku, using a different technique in each.

You will recall that in winter, hokku using opposites are often effective (as they are in summer) by presenting us with contrasting elements. Bashō does that in the first verse, which I will give in a very literal form:

Usually hateful,snowcrow
Even a crow…
The snowy morning.

That is rather cryptic to a Western reader, because we are unaccustomed to having to fill in the blanks. Many hokku, however, rely on implying something without stating it directly, and the reader is expected to make that intuitive leap. In some verses it it easy, but in others no one is quite sure what the writer intended, so demanding excessive intuitiveness of the reader can ruin a verse. And in any case, Westerners generally prefer “plain talk” and things stated clearly and simply. It is a cultural difference.

That is why R.H. Blyth, in translating this verse, added to the original, making it:

How beautiful
The usually hateful crow,
This morn of snow!

But as you see, the original does not say “how beautiful.” I think I would go with a more understated rendering:

Usually hateful,
Even the crow is appealing —
The snowy morning.

The setting is the snowy morning. The subject is, of course, the usually hateful crow, and the action is “appealing.” We are using “action” very loosely here. You will recall that in the standard setting/subject/action hokku, the action is something moving or changing. Here the change is that the crow has gone from being hateful to being appealing.

It is probably obvious to you that the reason this hokku is somewhat successful is that it contrasts the blackness of the crow with the whiteness of the snow, so we have a Yin (black) Yang (white) contrast here.

It is only a small step from that verse to one that does not use such a striking contrast, but is nonetheless based on the same notion — that a new snowfall makes ordinary things look different than usual:

We even
Look at horses —
The snowy morning.

Horses, in Bashō’s day, were very ordinary things, used for travel and for carrying loads. He is saying that in the context of snow, even the everyday horses take on an unexpected interest for us.

Bashō could have combined notions from the two verses like this, avoiding the “usually hateful” in the first example:

Even the crow
Becomes appealing;
The snowy morning.

As an English verse, I like that better than either of the originals. It not only eliminates the rather awkward and obvious “usually hateful,” but it also takes advantage of the “harmony of contrasts” that often makes for strong winter hokku.

If we want to avoid the repetition of the -ing sound that ends the second and third lines, we could make a more substantial change:

A snowy dawn;
Even the crow
Has become appealing.

In a verse as brief as hokku, every change gives a slightly different effect.

Did you notice that both of Bashō’s verses happen at morning? There is a reason for that. He wants to give the impression of a fresh snowfall, a new time when we see old things in a new way. And seeing ordinary things in a new way is, you will recall, one of the keys to writing effective hokku.

Here are the originals in transliteration and literal translation. I am putting this at the end so it can be easily skipped by those not interested in the linguistic details. It is important to remember that one need know nothing at all about Japanese to write hokku in English, but one must know the principles, techniques, and aesthetics of writing hokku in English:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usualy hateful crow even snow ‘s morning kana

Uma wo sae nagamuru yuki no ashita kana
Horse[s] wo even look snow ‘s morning kana

Keep in mind that Japanese does not specify number; so one can translate “crow” or “crows,” “horse” or “horses.” In most verses the singular is to be preferred, but now and then the plural. The principle in hokku is that one thing is generally felt to be more significant than many things, because it focuses the attention. One thing is often used when looking at an event closely, and more than one when looking from farther away.




I often mention that Shiki, who is generally considered (inaccurately) the founder of the modern haiku movement, just continued to write hokku, for the most part, though he called them “haiku.”

Not only were his verses hokku in form, they also continued the seasonal connection (which most writers of modern haiku have abandoned entirely) and, whether Shiki himself realized it or not, they often continued the aesthetic approach of hokku, so were hokku for all practical purposes, whatever he wished to call them.

Here is a good example, which in form and content is really nothing other than an autumn hokku:

The light in the next room
Goes out too;
The cold of night.

If you read my previous postings on the Hokku Wheel of the Year and the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, you will easily grasp the significance of this verse.

It is set in autumn, the time when Yang energy (light, warmth, movement) is fading and Yin energy (dark, cold, stillness) is increasing. It is late night. the writer extinguishes his own lamp, and then, after some time in silence, he sees the faint glow from the light in the next room go out too.

This verse expresses very well the fading of Yang energy, as first one light goes out — adding to the darkness — and then the light in the other room also goes out, making the darkness complete. And in that darkness one suddenly perceives deeply the chill of the autumn night, not yet as piercing as that of winter, but affecting in its expression that light and warmth are fading from the world. This increasing of darkness and cold parallels the waning of Yang and the increasing dominance of Yin in the season of autumn. So we could say quite honestly that this little verse manifests the character of deepening autumn very well.

It is all such deeper connections that have been forgotten and lost in the modern haiku movement, which on the whole has a completely different spirit and aesthetic than the practice of hokku. It already began to be lost in the time of Shiki, but we still find it in this verse.

As I have mentioned before, I have one reader who chides me if I do not add the originals for Japanese hokku I translate here, so for him and any others who may wish it, here is Shiki’s verse in a literal translation (in Western lineation) and in transliteration.

Next’s room’s
Light also extinguished
Night-cold kana

Tsugi no ma no/ tomoshi mo kiete/ yosamu kana
Next ‘s room ‘s/ lamp also extinguished/ night-cold kana

We are getting closer to the next major calendar point in the hokku year, which is Halloween/Samhain; it marks the end of autumn by the old calendar, and the beginning of winter, the season when Yang forces are weakest and Yin forces dominant. Shiki’s verse of increasing darkess and cold makes a good lead-in to that.



I often talk about Yin and Yang in hokku.  In fact I talk about them so much that another name for the kind of hokku I teach might be “Yin-Yang” hokku.  That is how important it is — so important that one cannot fully understand hokku without it.

In old Asia and in hokku, it was something people grew up with.  It was even the principle upon which old traditional Asian medicine and philosophy were based.  But it has to be actually taught to Western students, because they generally are not familiar with it.

I will try to make it brief, so this posting will condense a lot of information that the student should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of hokku.

You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol.  It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:


Yin and Yang are the two opposite, yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe.  They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in hokku.  Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony.  So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang.  In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together.  When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.

What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms?  This is very ancient knowledge.

Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;

That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes.  Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang.  You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page:  the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang.  When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin;  when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.

As already mentioned, everything in the universe is — at any moment — in some stage of the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.

In hokku this is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the principle of internal reflection.  In hokku the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another.  In addition, in hokku there are two kinds of harmony:  there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast.  Both of these important aspects of hokku relate to Yin and Yang.

We already know that time and the seasons are essential to hokku.  Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:

Let’s start with deepest winter.  Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin.  And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang.  That is exactly what happens.  In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow.  We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.”  It grows and spring begins.  So spring is increasing Yang.  Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang.  Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases.  That is what is happening in spring.  Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season.  The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin.  A seed of Yin starts to grow within it.  Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining.  Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root.  We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang.  But in autumn it falls — Yin.

Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season.  Then the whole cycle begins anew.

This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the hokku principle of internal reflection:

Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring.  Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins.  One grows gradually older — the autumn of life.  And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate, and we die — deep winter.

The same thing applies to each day:

The middle of night is deep Yin.  Dawn nears and Yang increases.  We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus of the birds.  Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases.  Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it.  The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows.  Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.

So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:

Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;

We see Yin and Yang in a landscape painting.  Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin.  And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place.  And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.

In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how hokku work without it.  In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.

We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:

On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:
Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.
To this we add our poetic hokku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin.  So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period in the season, which of course is very “hokku.”

You can see from all of that what a very excellent spring poem this hokku of Onitsura is.  And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all.  That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to hokku as I teach it — because not only was it essential to old hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.

If you have “been around the block,” as the saying goes — if you are familiar with books written on all kinds of short verse that are descended in one way or another from the hokku,  and familiar with journals and internet sites, you will realize suddenly that I am the only person teaching this relationship of Yin and Yang in old and modern hokku.  You will not find this teaching of how it relates to hokku in practice anywhere else.  Why?  Because other kinds of brief modern verse — modern haiku in particular — have largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku.  Most never knew them to begin with.  I am sure that one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the actual practice of hokku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.

I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to the hokku than superficially meets the eye, how one must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how hokku works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.

Once one knows about and begins to understand the Yin-Yang principle, one sees it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time.   That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of hokku.

I should add that for the old writers of hokku, Yin and Yang were not a recipe for writing. They did not consciously think, “Now I must write a poem incorporating Yin and Yang in order to get a certain effect.”  Yin and Yang were just a part of their cultural and aesthetic background, so they did not have to consciously consider their interactions in writing, for the most part.  For us in the West, however, the interactions of Yin and Yang are not a part of our cultural background — at least not since a very long time — so the best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in old hokku.  That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your hokku practice — your personal background — but not in any forced and rigid way.



Contemplative hokku are those which best exemplify the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that are the chief virtues of hokku.  And these, along with the appreciation of the inherent poetry in a simple thing-event, set in the context of the seasons and dealing with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, show us hokku at its highest.  That is the most important discovery of the old writers of haikai — the discovery of those elements which, as Blyth says, “enable us to seize the inner essence of any commonplace, everyday occurance, to touch that inner nerve of life, of existence, that runs through the dullest and most unmeaning fact.”

That discovery was that if we simply reveal a sensory experience in which an unspoken significance is felt, presenting it plain and bare and unornamented by all our attempts at “poetry” and elaboration and commentary, we touch the very essence of poetry.  But to do this we must abandon the desire to be poets; we must simply become a mirror reflecting, so that Nature may speak through us.

One might think that Shiki, whose changes and ideas began the destruction of the hokku, might have done away with all that.  But even among Shiki’s verses — which are often hokku in all but name — we still find examples manifesting poverty and simplicity and selflessness.  Such verses are high points in Shiki’s writing, as they are in the hokku tradition that preceded him.

An example:

It bounces about
In the abandoned boat —
The hail.

In that verse there is no writer, no poet, no ornamentation or commentary — only hail bouncing about in an old, weathered wooden boat.  We feel the coldness and hardness of the hail and hear the sound of it as it strikes the wood.  That is sensory experience.  It is unfortunate that not all of Shiki’s attempts live up to the qualities present here.  That is because the virtues obvious in this verse were not those around which Shiki built his life.

Hokushi wrote:

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

That is a softer verse.  The wide umbrellas — which we see instead of the heads of the passers by — reflect the snow-covered landscape, and the multiplicity of the falling snowflakes are reflected in the plural number of umbrellas on which the white flakes near-silently fall.

But see what Yaha wrote, by contrast:

One umbrella
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

Yaha has chosen to show us the solitude and inwardness of winter, of cold, of the snow that covers everything in a blanket of silence.  Both verses are good, but that of Yaha is more expressive simply because one thing is generally felt, in hokku, to be more significant than many.  That is not only a basic principle of the aesthetics that underlie the hokku, but it is also a basic principle of traditional flower arranging (Ikebana) in Japanese culture, the culture out of which the hokku grew.  But as with all things that are best in hokku, it is a universal principle, though not always recognized.

Note that the writer in all of these verses is invisible.  In the first there is only the bouncing hail and the abandoned boat; in the other two, there is only the falling snow and either a number of umbrellas or only one.  The writer has become a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature, and that is a fundamental principle of hokku.  There is generally no need for “I”, “me,” or “my,” though of course we use these words in hokku when it is awkward not to do so.  Nonetheless when they are used, there is no emphasis on an “I” as separate from everything else, and we treat that “I” just as we would a bird pecking in the snow or an old wagon being covered up by falling snow.  That is part of the selflessness of contemplative hokku.

This kind of verse appeals to a certain kind of person.  Obviously it does not appeal to everyone, or everyone would be writing and reading contemplative hokku.  Nonetheless, it is something very rare and special and world literature, and as I often say, hokku — particularly contemplative hokku — is not for everyone, because everyone is not for hokku.  It depends on the character and spirit of the individual.

There is also the obvious fact that writing and appreciating contemplative hokku runs completely counter to the general tenor of modern society, which puts great emphasis on “me,” on what “I” want, and very little emphasis on the giving up of the ego and the adoption of a selfless attitude.  There is very little appreciation of the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that characterize contemplative hokku.

Nonetheless, for those who do appreciate it and feel comfortable in it, this attitude demonstrates what a remarkable thing was revealed by the old hokku writers of Japan, who sometimes managed to achieve the poetry of no-poetry in ordinary thing-events of Nature set in the cycle of the seasons.  Contemplative hokku is the result — and to me, as I have said before, it represents the best of old hokku as well as the best of hokku written today — verses with the same tradition of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.



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.



R. H. Blyth remarks that “only in Japan can we find hundreds of ‘poems’ written on the subject of heat.”  That he puts “poems” in quotes is significant, and indicates — as I always tell students — that we should not confuse what we are accustomed to think of as poetry with hokku.  For the most part, hokku is nothing at all like conventional Western poetry.   We may accurately describe hokku — following Blyth — as “poetry-sensation, the sensation perceived poetically.”

Now sensation means simply an experience of one or more of the five senses — taste, touch, smell hearing, and seeing.  Heat and cold fall under touch, given that they are our contact with the presence or absence of heat.  So please note, dear readers, that there is a poetry of the sensations, and that poetry is precisely as Blyth describes it — “the sensation perceived poetically.” And that is what we find in hokku.

Now it should be obvious to those with some knowledge of English poetry that there is precious little in it that can in any way equate with this notion — that sensation is in itself poetic.  Yet there is poetry in cold, and poetry in heat.  Not the poetry of playing with words, of being clever in verse, but in the sensation itself when perceived by a human.

It was the genius of the Japanese — of the writers of hokku — that they realized this, thus the large numbers of hokku on heat and cold, on each separately, and on the meeting of the two.

There is a woman’s poetry of heat (Sono-jo):

The child on my back,
Playing with my hair;
The heat!

There is a crabby man’s poetry of heat (Shingi):

He says nothing
To anyone who comes;
The heat!

There is the unfortunate woman’s poetry of heat (Yayū):

The prostitute
Sells her sweaty body;
The heat!

There is the laborer’s poetry of heat (Shiki):

In the fisherman’s hut,
The smell of dried fish;
The heat!

There is the (mistreated) animal’s poetry of heat (Chōsō):

Dressing him,
The monkey gets sulky;
The heat!

One could go on and on, but I will stop with Hyakuri’s

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

How very different in method from the similar English excerpt from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge):

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Let’s look again at Hyakuri’s hokku:

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

Heat is yang.  The ebbing of the tide is yin.  Something unmoving, in this case the ship, is also yin.  In nature we find that paradoxically, yang tends to create yin.  In the desert we find cacti, which are watery and yin on the inside, just as fruits in the heat of Hawai’i are also yin.  That is the effect we get in this verse.  The great heat is manifesting itself in the unmoving yin of the immobile ship, and we feel it also in the ebb tide — not as a cause-effect occurrence, but just because of the “weak” yin feeling in the tide.

One of the most important realizations the beginning student of hokku can make is that the distinctiveness of hokku is in its “poetry-sensation,” as it enables us to experience “the sensation perceived poetically.”



Michihiko, who lived in the time of Issa, wrote:

Kare-ashi ya             yuki no chirakutsuku   kaze no ato
Withered-reeds ya snow’s  flitting              wind ‘s after

Withered reeds;
The snow flutters down
After the wind.

The wind has ceased, and the snow flutters softly down over the withered reeds.

The setting is “withered reeds.”  The subject is “the snow.”  The action is “flutters down after the wind.”  So this is another standard hokku, consisting of setting, subject and action.

“Withered reeds” is in keeping with the deathly yin of winter.  And of course the snow is yin.  And the ceasing of the wind is also yin — the change from motion to stillness.  And in that stillness, over the withered reeds, the cold snow flutters downward — a yin direction.

Sōchō wrote:

Yuki akari    akaruki neya wa    mata samushi
Snow light    bright   bedroom wa moreover cold

The bedroom is bright
But cold!

The brightness comes from the snow outside, but it is a winter brightness, meaning very chilly. This shows us the relativity of Nature — how there are no absolutes in Yin and Yang, but rather one thing is yin in comparison to another.  Light is conventionally thought of as yang, but being the light of winter, it is very yin in comparison to the light of summer — so very cold!



Here is my periodic disclaimer:

I do not teach modern haiku, which, as it exists today, has virtually nothing to do with the old hokku written by Bashō, Onitsura, Gyōdai, Taigi, and all the others who wrote up until the end of the 19th century.  It is inaccurate, anachronistic, and a mistake to confuse hokku with haiku, and the latter term should never be used to describe the former.

I have nothing to do with the modern haiku community, its practices or its goals, which are very different from those of the old writers of hokku.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s look at another verse by Yaha.

Yesterday we discussed the significance of one thing versus many in hokku, and we looked at two verses, the latter by Yaha:

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening

Yaha also wrote:

Hitogoe no   yowa wo suguru   samusa kana
Person-voice ‘s night-half wo pass  cold  kana

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Yesterday I said that in hokku, one thing has more perceived significance than many things, and I used the “single” umbrella of Yaha in contrast to “many umbrellas” as an example.  Yet today there is this hokku in which I translate “people” and “voice” as a plural.

In hokku we must beware of rigid dogmatism.  Hokku reflects Nature, which is a living, changing thing, and our verses and our practice must be in keeping with that.

As I have said, Japanese had no distinction between plural and singular.  so when we see hitogoe (hito-koe), we could just as easily translate thus:

Someone’s voice
Passes at midnight;
The cold!

We must use common sense, however, combined with the aesthetics of hokku.  People generally do not wander about outside at midnight talking to themselves (well, they may in my city, but there are lots of strange people in cities!); further, the sense that there are at least two people passing outside, conversing in low tones, adds to the sense of contrast and solitude in the verse.  You will remember that Winter is a time of extremes, so verses that mix activity with passiveness, Yang with Yin, are particularly effective.

Having conversing people passing (Yang) outside at midnight (deep Yin), then, is effective precisely because of the contrast between the voices outside and the solitude of the writer and the time of night — and becoming, as readers, that person awake at midnight — listening to the voices passing by outside — we feel the cold all the more deeply in our solitude.



In the last posting, we saw a hokku into which Bashō put too much overt emotion, which spoiled it.  How should emotion be expressed in hokku?  Indirectly, as in this verse by Issa:

Hitōri to    chōmen ni tsuku    yosamu kana
One-person   register in marks   night cold kana

He notes in the register;
The cold night.

Notice that there is no overt mention at all of emotion, and yet the verse evokes a certain feeling in us as we read it.  That is because the fact that the fellow registering at the inn is single — alone — is reflected in the cold of night.  The cold emphasizes his aloneness, just as his aloneness emphasizes the cold.

This verse teaches us that emotion in hokku is evoked by what it includes, not by stating it openly.  When stated openly — which some writers of hokku attempted from time to time — it usually fails by saying too much and saying it too obviously.

If there is a flaw in Issa’s verse, it is that he focuses on the personal a bit too much.  It reminds us of the “lonely” paintings of William Hopper.  Issa does not exceed the bounds of hokku here, and one comes to expect his verses to be more personal than those of other writers.  Nonetheless, in this tendency we find both the popularity of Issa and his weakness.



December has begun, and with it has come a deeper cold in my region.  The next few nights are expected to be at or below freezing.

Taigi wrote a hokku expressive of such growing cold:

Tsumetasa ni   hōki sutekeri   matsu no shita
nail-pain at      broom left        pine   ‘s    under

The “nail-pain” of which Taigi speaks is the pain one feels in one’s fingernails when the fingers become very cold.  So what Taigi is saying is that he went out to sweep up the fallen leaves, but quickly found it so cold that the ends of his fingers began to hurt, and so he abandoned his broom beneath the pine tree, and went quickly back indoors.

This is a difficult thing to translate literally into English and still have it sound natural, so we will have to approximate, perhaps something like,

My fingers freezing,
The broom is left
Beneath the pine tree.

The verse expresses well that transitional time  from autumn to winter, when one has not yet realized how cold it has become.  Going out to sweep up the leaves left by autumn, we find that the cold of winter has unexpectedly come, and it has come so strongly that it forces us to abandon our broom and hurriedly return inside — where it is warmer.

Structurally this verse is simple:

Setting:  My fingers freezing
Subject:  The broom
Action:  Is left beneath the pine tree

It is important to remember that the setting of a hokku is not limited just to the wider physical environment.  It may also be a condition in or under which something takes place, and in this verse that condition is “My fingers freezing.”  In English we cannot just say “My fingers hurting,” because the reader will not know why they are hurting, so we must be more explicit and make clear that they are hurting from the cold.

Keep in mind that the point of what we do here — of talking about and translating old Japanese hokku — is just to help you to learn how to write hokku in English, or in whatever your native language happens to be.  Old hokku are enjoyable to read, but if we do not write new hokku as well, the tradition will die out.  So the point of discussing what the old Japanese hokku writers did and how they did it is to show visitors to this site how to continue the hokku tradition in modern times, in modern languages.  It does not matter if that language is English or Russian or Norwegian or Welsh, or any other language.  One can write real hokku in it if one understands the aesthetics and underlying principles and techniques.