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.




As a reader here perceptively remarked, “All daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”  Today we will begin a look — via old hokku — at just what daoku is.  Because it originated in Japanese hokku of a certain kind, we can easily use relevant old hokku translated into the English-language daoku form as daoku examples.

First — like hokku in general — each daoku is set in the context of one of the four seasons.  Old hokku used specific season words to put a verse in its context, but the system became very complicated and unwieldy over time, requiring years to master.  In daoku we simply head each verse with the season in which it is written.  Daoku are never written out of season.  One does not write a spring verse in autumn, or a winter verse in summer.  The season heading is placed in parentheses above the daoku, like this:


On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

Now it may seem redundant to have the heading (Spring) above a verse that has the word “spring” in it, but it saves a lot of confusion when a group of hokku of the same season are grouped together, because many daoku will not have the season mentioned in the verse.  When presenting several daoku of the same season together, the season heading is placed only above the first verse in the sequence.

Let’s examine the form:

On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

Each line begins with a capital letter.

The daoku is in two parts, a shorter part and a longer part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark.  In the case of this verse, the separating mark is the semicolon at the end of the first line.  The comma at the end of the second line is there to guide the reader easily through the verse.

The verse also ends with an appropriate punctuation mark — in this case, a period.

The invariable punctuation marks in a daoku are the separating mark and the ending mark, though of course the kind of punctuation marks used may vary.

Daoku is written in three brief lines.  Usually they total only between about seven to thirteen words. The important thing is to keep it brief, and without unnecessary padding.  The daoku above contains only ten words, which falls easily within the normal range.

There are several characteristics of daoku.  Prominent among them are these:


Poverty in daoku is the opposite of materialism.  It means being satisfied with little instead of much, both in writing and in life.  It is a kind of minimalism.  It avoids the grand and flamboyant. We find povery not only in the aesthetics of hokku, but also in its minimal use of words, while retaining normal grammar.

Simplicity means that daoku deal with ordinary things in ordinary words.  The difference is that daoku is at its best when dealing with ordinary things seen in a new or different way.

Selflessness means that in daoku, it is the verse — or rather what it conveys — that is important, not the writer.  The writer in daoku should be invisible, so that the reader may become the experiencer.  We say the writer gets out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That is why use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my” is kept to a minimum in daoku, and avoided when it is not awkward to do so.  Writers of daoku do not think of themselves as “poets” writing “poetry.”  Instead, the writer of daoku becomes a clear mirror reflecting Nature, just as a still pond clearly reflects the moon.

Transience — which we may also call impermanence — means that daoku as a whole have an underlying sense of the constant change in Nature — that things do not last, but are in a continual state of transformation.  Dawn appears only to become noon, then night; frost appears only to melt and disappear.  Leaves grow only to mature and wither.

On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

I like to use this verse at the beginning of spring (according to the old hokku calendar, which is also the daoku calendar) because it so clearly expresses the time when the cold (yin) of winter lingers, but the warmth (yang) of spring is growing.  We see the former in the frost on the leaves, and the latter in the young leaves themselves.  Further, growing warmth and light (yang) are reflected in the dawn.

“Dawn” reflects the time of year, which is spring. Spring is the beginning of the year just as dawn is the beginning of day. So in this verse we see spring reflected in the dawn, and dawn reflected in the spring. Both have a feeling of freshness and youth and newness. But we also find the contrast between the “growing yang” dawn (reflected in “spring”) and the “diminishing yin” seen in the temporary morning frost on the leaf of the barley. This shows us directly the interplay between the forces of Yin and Yang in Nature. Early spring is a time when those two forces seem to contend for dominance, but being a spring verse, we know which will win, because spring means growing yang and diminishing yin, just as dawn means the same.

曙や   麦の葉末の   春の霜

Akebono ya   mugi no hazue no    haru no shimo
Dawn      ya   barley ‘s  leaf-tip  ‘s spring ‘s frost

In the original by Onitsura, the word translated here as “barley” — mugi (in kanji, むぎ in hiragana) can also mean wheat, oats, etc. — it is a general term for grain crops.

If any readers here have questions about the nature or techniques of daoku, please ask, now that spring is again beginning.  Unlike other forms of brief verse that have grown out of or been inspired by hokku, daoku has specific standards, principles, and aesthetics.  It is more challenging to learn, but also — for those who find it speaks to their condition, more rewarding.




Here is a loose translation of an old winter hokku by Issa:

The loneliness —
Frost on the window.

There is something about the cold and clear austerity of winter that makes us feel our solitude even more deeply.




A loosely translated winter hokku by Yasui:

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


It calls to mind two other winter hokku we have already seen; this one by Chiyo-ni —

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

And this by Bashō:

Winter bleakness;
In a one-color world
The sound of the wind.





Wild geese cry
Above the frosty roofs;
Autumn’s end.

Yes, according to the old calendar, autumn is ending.  It ends with Halloween, the present day incarnation of the ancient holiday Samhain that marked the point at which the time of darkness and cold increases — the beginning of winter.

There is an interesting sonnet (#73) by Shakespeare that, in spite of its antiquated language, reveals the same universal correspondences we find in hokku.  I will give each stanza in the original, followed by a paraphrase.

But first, I want to talk about about the poet and the person to whom the poem is addressed.  Contrary to some interpretations, I do not read this poem as a love poem addressed by an old man to a young woman.  It just does not fit.  And in spite of all the publicity given youth-age Hollywood “for profit” marriages, romantically the young — let’s face it — love the young, not the old.  And as the old Victorian song goes,

‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,
For youth cannot mate with age.

That is why when I read this poem, I think of an old man addressing someone only a little younger than himself, such as might be said in an old married couple who have shared their mellowed love for many years beyond the time of burning, sensual romance.  I think it will make more sense to you as well if read that way.  So let’s give it a try.

The poet begins with an analogy:  he, in his old age, is like the season of late autumn:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

You can see in me that I am like that time of year
When yellow leaves — or few of them or none of them —
Hang on branches that shake in the cold [wind] —
Like bare ruined choirs where just a little time ago the sweet birds sang.

The poet is saying that his listener can see he is in the late autumn of life, when only a few altered traces — or maybe even none — of his youth remain.  He feels his aged appearance is like the cold bare branches of trees from which the leaves that made them attractive have nearly or all fallen.

Shakespeare uses a very effective and poetic metaphor  here:

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

He is using “choirs” here in its architectural sense, so he does not mean choirs of singers here, but rather choirs as those parts of old English churches that were furnished with wooden stalls in which the members of the choir sat.  Here is a modern image of such stalls in an architectural choir:


Knowing now that meaning of “choirs” here, you can picture the

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang

as the cold tree branches bereft of leaves, where earlier in the season the birds still sang sweetly.

Now he makes second analogy:  his life is like the twilight, the end of day:

In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me, the poet says,  you see the twilight of a day that will fade in the West after sunset, its light taken away by black night — a thing akin to Death, and like Death, the night will cover everything with rest.

Then he uses a third analogy:  his life is like a weak fire that will soon go out:

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d by that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In me, he says, you see the glow of a fire that barely remains on the ashes it created when it was stronger — the death-bed-like ashes upon which it will extinguish itself, consumed by the same energy that previously made it burn brightly.  The same energy of life that made me strong and attractive in youth will now in old age burn the last of what remains of my life.

As Lord Byron wrote,

For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,

And the poet finishes it all by saying,

You see all of these signs of aging and death approaching, and they only make your love for me stronger, because they tell you that soon I shall die and you must say goodbye to all our years together, because I shall be no more.

We often find in hokku the equivalency between autumn and human aging, just as we find the equivalency between twilight and age.  The difference, however, is that in Western poetry for the most part — as here in Shakespeare — these equivalencies are openly expressed.  In hokku, however, twilight and autumn are not symbols of aging, or analogies or similes of aging — they are merely things that happen in Nature.  Yet seeing them happen, they evoke in us the equivalencies, even though they are not openly expressed.  Instead, we say that age is “reflected” in twilight and autumn, meaning the equivalency is much more subtle — unspoken in hokku, but expressed openly and clearly in English poetry.


Here is a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:


The frost on the window
Only deepens it.

There is something about the icy cold of winter that really does increase the sense of aloneness.  This verse gives us the feeling of (spiritual) poverty that is so important to hokku, and the verse is all the more striking because of its stark simplicity — very much in keeping with the nature of winter cold.