Tomorrow evening is Halloween — Samhain in the old agricultural calendar.  It is a very ancient holiday.  Traditionally, it is the beginning of winter, and the time when the spirits of the Dead return.  So it reminds us of all that is withering in Nature, and of our own mortality.

Buson wrote a hokku very much in keeping with this time of year.  You will recall that in traditional Japanese hokku, fallen leaves relate to winter, and winter corresponds to the latter part of old age and to death:


Heaped up
Around the old man’s shack — 
Fallen leaves.

The very old man is in keeping with winter, as are the fallen leaves piled up around his dwelling.  Being so old, he does nothing to sweep them away, and in the leaves that have fallen on one another, we feel the accumulation of the many years of the old man’s life.


Where I have “old man,” the original has “long-life [person]”






As a writer of hokku, Buson had his flaws.  He was sometimes too consciously literary, at others too obviously painterly (he was, after all, an artist).  That is why numbers of his verses fail to quite make it as good hokku.  Nonetheless, there are some that are very good and in keeping with the poverty and selflessness and simplicity and impermanence characteristic of hokku at its best.  Here is one:

The narrow path
Not quite buried;
Fallen leaves.

Where I am it would be very much up to date, because the leaves are falling heavily now in the cooling air.  In old Japan it would have been a winter verse, but according to the hokku calendar it is the beginning of winter now.  Autumn ended with Halloween.

Old hokku had a sometimes not very accurate distinction between verses about colored leaves, which were autumn verses, and those about fallen leaves, which were winter verses.  Here in the West we go by what is happening where we are.  So for us, both verses about colored leaves and fallen leaves may come under the autumn heading or the winter heading.  We are not so rigid as old hokku sometimes tended to become, and we pay close attention to what is actually happening in Nature in a given season.  That helps to keep us from falling into the artificiality that began to afflict old hokku over time.  It helps to keep our verse fresh and new.

This hokku, like many, requires a leap of intuition from the reader.  In good hokku such leaps are easy if one keeps in mind that there is always some relationship between the shorter and longer parts of a hokku (short and long are separated by the “cutting” punctuation).  In this verse we know that what is meant by the first part is that the narrow path is nearly but not yet entirely buried in fallen leaves; that is clear from the second part.  Some hokku require greater leaps of intuition, but if that leap becomes too great, a hokku fails.  Hokku should always be clear and quickly intuited.  For one schooled in the principles of hokku aesthetics, that is one mark distinguishing good hokku from bad.



Today I would like to discuss two hokku that are somewhat similar in effect.  Originally one was an autumn hokku, the other a winter hokku.  The explanation lies in old Japanese verse, with its somewhat artificial system of “season words” that made seasonal distinctions among colored leaves and falling leaves (generally autumn subjects) and fallen leaves (the last being a winter subject).

Now we may ask why this distinction, and the answer is simply that it became a literary convention, and its artificiality is one reason why in modern hokku we abandon such artifice for something more in keeping with the actual characteristics of the season where we are.

The verses discussed today have different subjects:  The first is fallen leaves, the second is wild geese.

Gyōdai wrote one of the best old hokku, which in America would generally be considered a verse of mid to late autumn:

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

It is very pleasing in its simplicity, and very effective in its combination of the visual and the auditory — sight and sound.  But look a bit closer, and you will see how Gyōdai accomplishes this.

You will recall the “standard” hokku form, which consists of a setting, a subject, and an action.  Gyōdai’s verse, however, consists of a subject-action pair, which brings to mind the parallelism and couplets of Chinese verse:

Leaves (subject) fall and lie on one another (action)
Rain (subject) beats on rain (action)

In spite of this, the greater visual “space” given to the leaves nonetheless maintains the “uneven” feeling that distinguishes hokku from the more precise parallelism of Chinese verse.

So much for form.  Now on to why the hokku “works.”

As you all know, I constantly emphasize the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku.  You will recall that something ascending is Yang; something falling is Yin.  Also something dry is Yang; something wet is Yin.  Of course these are not absolutes, but must be seen in relation to other things.

Regular readers here also know that harmony and unity are very important to hokku.  And that is what we see In Gyōdai’s verse:

1. Leaves fall and lie on one another
2. Rain beats on rain

The falling leaves exhibit the Yin character of autumn, its loss of energy and its aging.  The falling rain also exhibits the Yin character of the season.  The rain descends (Yin), and is wet (Yin).  The fallen leaves lie unmoving, just piling on one another (Yin).  So this is a hokku of harmony of similarity, meaning it creates a sense of harmony and unity by combining things that are similar in character or feeling.

Unlike many hokku, this verse does not have a specified setting, but the setting is created by the verse itself, without being put into definite words.  It is (in our climate) autumn.

Now we will move on to the second verse and examine how it is similar to the first, even though the subject is different:

The voices
Of wild geese lie on one another;
The cold of night.

That is a rather literal translation and thus a bit confusing in English, though it can easily be understood if one compares it to Gyōdai’s preceding hokku.   So to make it more clear in English, we will follow Gyōdai’s lead:

Wild geese descend,
Their cries piling up;
The cold of night.

Do you see the similarity with Gyōdai’s hokku now?  In both something is falling — descending — coming down:

1.  Leaves
2.  Wild geese

And in both something is lying on top of something else –“piling up”:

1. Leaves
2.  Cries (voices) of descending wild geese

We can see further that the sound of the rain beating on the rain in Gyōdai’s verse is matched — though somewhat differently — by the sound of the cries of the wild geese in that of Kyoroku.

Now whether we say “voices” or “cries” in English depends on the effect we want to give.  “Cries” makes the sounds loud and somewhat distinct; “voices” is more indicative of a steady gabbling of the geese as they descend and chatter among one another.

In everything I tell you on this site, my purpose is not merely to explain old hokku as one might explain the characteristics of fossils in a museum.  My intent is to show you how these verses are not fossils, not merely dry bones, but rather still have the fresh juice of life in them.  And not only that, but to show you how you may write new verses in the same, long hokku tradition.

Want I do not want is for people to use what I say here only as information for writing a paper or for trying to impress others with their learning.  Instead I want to help people of the presently-living generations to bring the too-long-overlooked hokku tradition back to a full and vital and healthy contemporary life.  It has lain far too long in the oppressive and unhealthy shadow of modern haiku, which, far from being a continuation of the old hokku tradition, is actually a very recent, mutant offshoot that has long been deleterious to hokku and has prevented its understanding.

And to that end, I remind all readers again that hokku is NOT modern haiku.  It does not share the aesthetics or the attitudes or the goals of modern haiku.  Instead, the writing of hokku is to bring us back to an understanding of our place as humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature; and it is to help us develop our lives as spiritual and contemplative beings rather than contributing to the egotism, materialism, greed, and environmental destruction so common and so threatening to the world today.

And, of course, hokku is to simply give us a quiet, meditative pleasure as it reunites us with Nature and the always changing seasons, the ever-turning wheel of the year and the continuous interplay and transformations of Yin and Yang.



The previous posting dealt with the correct translation of Bashō’s spring “Old Pond” hokku into English.  But what is significant for us is understanding the verse as an example of hokku.

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

Unlike most hokku, in English (not in Japanese) this one has a double pause, indicated by the punctuation at the ends of lines one and two.  This is usually not done, but it can be done when appropriate, as here.

You will recall that the sense of the verse — following the Japanese more literally — is:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

That, of course, needs only one pause.  But for the effect we want in English, it requires two:

First, the firm, strong pause at the end of line one, which enables the reader to see and experience the old pond without hurry, before moving on to the next line.

Second, the dash at the end of line two, which gives us a very quiet and smooth connective transition (note how a dash is more connective than a semicolon in feeling):

A frog jumps in —

And we finish with the final line and a period:

The sound of water.

It is important to note that if we did not do this, the verse might be open to the same kind of peculiar misinterpretation that I corrected for a reader in yesterday’s posting, the notion that the frog is jumping into “the sound of water.”  So it is not:

A frog jumps in the sound of water

but rather

A frog jumps in — the sound of water.

Just that brief connective pause makes all the difference.  Punctuation is so endlessly useful in hokku!

You will recall that we introduced a second and structurally-similar verse, Ryūshi’s “Stillness” hokku, which in Japan is a winter verse, but more appropriate to late autumn in my region:

The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

It is not hard to see that this is very much the form of the “Old Pond” in a more literal translation:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

The structure in English, in fact, is virtually identical.

The lesson to be learned from this is that by using and varying appropriate patterns, hokku never becomes old-fashioned or out-of-date.  It can always be the vessel that holds a new experience, even if it is presented in a very old pattern.

And notice too the effect of both verses.  Each begins with something still and lasting:

The old pond;

And then in that “stable” setting something brief and more obviously transient happens:

The sound of a frog jumping into the water.
The sound of a bird walking on fallen leaves.

It is, as everyone can see and is shown by the fame of the “Old Pond” verse, a very effective approach.  Essentially what we see is:

Return to stillness.

That pattern has a very deep and unspoken — even un-speak-able — meaning.