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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picked up is moving;
Ebb tide.

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

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







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

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

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

Buson wrote:


Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Rofu wrote:


Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

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

Ryōto wrote:


Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

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

Shiki wrote a similar verse:


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


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

Wakyu wrote:


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

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

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



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.




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.