It has rained on and off — and very heavily when on — here for many days now.  Most of the colorful autumn leaves have fallen.

Here is a verse by Kaen from the old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams, but in my loose translation.  You will notice that it has a dash of “thinking,” so in our system it is a shinku (hokku with a bit of thinking added) rather than a daoku (completely objective hokku):

The pattering of rain
On fallen leaves.

Hara-hara to oto       shite       sabishi ame ochiba
Falling       to  sound making   lonely  rain  fallen-leaves

It of course reminds us of a similar well-known verse by  Gyōdai that qualifies as daoku, being completely objective:  It is one of the simplest and best old hokku:

Ochiba ochikasanarite ame ame wo utsu

Falling-leaves fall-pile up rain rain wo beats

Leaves fall
And pile up;
Rain beats on rain.

R. H. Blyth translated it in a particularly appealing way, because of the consonance (repetition) of the letter “l”:

Leaves falling,
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.

When we compare Kaen’s verse with that of Gyōdai, we can easily see it is the addition of “loneliness” that makes it a shinku instead of a daoku.  That “loneliness” is the adding of the writer’s personal interpretation of the sound of the rain pattering on the fallen leaves.  Gyōdai, however, simply presents us with the leaves falling and piling up and the rain beating on the rain, and we feel what is openly stated in Kaen’s verse without the need to say it.  It is the old maxim we heard so often in school — “Show, don’t tell.”

There is no single English word that exactly corresponds to sabishi.  It combines elements of being alone and solitary with a kind of profound, wistful, existential sadness.  It does not have so much of the implications of “deprived of human company” that we sense in the English word “loneliness.”




Let’s look again at some good winter hokku:

The daikon puller;
He points the way
With a daikon.

That is one of the best of Issa’s hokku.  A daikon is a very large, long, and white radish, much like a giant carrot in shape.  Here, when Issa stops by a field and asks directions, the daikon puller holds out a daikon, using it as a pointer to show the way.  It is like a part of his arm.  Knowing this is a winter hokku, we can feel the cold air, and see the mud adhering to the long white daikon.

In Japan, daikon is a staple winter food.  It is particularly good in winter cooking — such as in soups and stews — because it is beneficial for the lungs.  One finds it appearing more and more in American markets.

Here is a verse by Rankō:

Withered reeds;
Day by day they break off
And float away.

That hokku is notable not only for its austere simplicity, but also for the attention — the awareness shown by the writer, who noticed the poetry in the breaking and floating away of the withered reeds — something many would pass by without a glance.

Gyōdai wrote:

Day darkens;
Again the snow
Begins to fall.

As the light of day begins to fail, flakes of snow begin to fall — first only a few, then increasingly more and more.  We cannot help but sense there is some deep meaning in this because we feel it, but we are helpless to put it into words.  It is a meaning of the senses and not of the superficial intellect.

Wordsworth similarly said,

To me the meanest [most common or insignificant] flower that blows [blooms] can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
In hokku what we find is a sense of significance rather than intellectual thoughts — that lie too deep for any words of explanation.  It can only be felt, not explained.  But the interesting thing is that when we read the words of the hokku, which are not words of explanation, but simply present the experience, that feeling of some deep, unspoken significance arises within us.
That is the amazing thing about hokku — the thing so many miss who look on it as “poetry.”  But as I have often said, what we think of as poetry in the West is generally nothing at all like the hokku seen above.
Each of them is an experience of the senses, not of the “thinking” mind.  Because of that, the impact of each hokku — as was just said — lies too deep for words; it is below the level of thought.
Further each of these hokku — these experiences of the senses — is set in a particular season — the season of winter, in this case, which deepens the sensory experience.
And also — this is extremely important — each of these hokku is completely objective.  Each merely presents the experience in three lines of simple words.  There is no explanation, there is no symbolism nor simile nor metaphor.  When we read the hokku, we have a wordless experience, though it is transmitted through words.
It is this aspect of Japanese hokku — or modern hokku in English or other languages written in the same spirit — that I find most significant and important.  There were other kinds of hokku in old Japan, but I see objective hokku as the most significant contribution of Japanese hokku to posterity — a legacy valuable enough and universal enough to be continued in our modern world through the writing of new objective hokku.
So if you want an identifying abbreviation for this kind of hokku, we can call it OH — Objective Hokku.  In it there is no ego, no explanation; only the simple, sensory experience with a significance that lies too deep for words.


Gyōdai wrote a very simple, yet effective autumn hokku:

Autumn mountains;
Here and there,
Smoke rises.

In those few words we see the mountains colored with autumn, and from hidden places in the hills, small plumes of smoke rise up.

There is a harmony of feeling between the autumn hills and the smoke.  We see humans (or rather we do not see them, but feel them through the smoke) not as apart from Nature, but as a part of it.

This is a kind of variant on the “big to small” technique, in which we first experience the wider picture, and then we focus in on a smaller detail.  Here the mountains are the “big” element, and the smoke rising here and there is the more detailed “small” focus — though of course really it is all seen as a whole.  But for compositional purposes, that might be a helpful way to see this verse.

In hokku we tend not to express emotions for themselves, though sometimes we find simple descriptive words like “sadness” or “loneliness.”  Often what we find, rather, is an event that arouses a certain emotion in us.

Shiki — that writer from around the end of the 19th century — kept the old form and connection of hokku with Nature in most of his verses, even though he used a different name for them.  Here is an autumn verse by him:

The light in the next room
Also goes out;
The cold night.

In this successive extinguishing of light we feel the fading of Yang energy, and in the cold darkness that remains after the light is gone, we feel the increased Yin energy of late autumn.   You will recall that Yang energy is bright and active and warm, while Yin is dark and passive and cold.  This extinguishing of the last light, makes the sudden awareness of cold even more intense, and the consequence is that the verse arouses an emotion in us — a kind of loneliness.  That feeling is also akin to autumn — the time when things wither and fade, and the nights grow longer and colder.


Tomorrow is Candlemas — Imbolc — the old beginning of spring. Yesterday was the lunar New Year, celebrated in Asia, which is also the traditional beginning of spring. So we can see, as I have said before, that if one follows the old European seasonal calendar, with its quarter and cross-quarter days, one is, with only slight variation, following the same calendar as the old hokku writers of Japan.

Here is a hokku for the beginning of spring, written by Gyôdai:

A crow cawing
In the cloudy hills.

The Wheel of the Year has turned, and whether or not there are signs of spring where you are, the Yin forces of Nature have begun to diminish, and the Yang forces are growing. Where I live, snowdrops have already sprouted their short green leaves above the earth and have put forth their drooping, snow-white blossoms. The days are growing longer, the nights ever shorter.

In today’s hokku, we see the increase of Yang and decrease of Yin in the melting of the snow. And by a happy chance, in the repetition of the same initial consonant in “crow,” “cawing,” and “cloudy” we also hear the cawing of the crow.



Gyōdai wrote one of the simplest and best early winter hokku:

Ochiba ochikasanarite ame ame wo utsu

Falling-leaves fall-pile up rain rain wo beats

Leaves fall
And pile up;
Rain beats on rain.

R. H. Blyth translated it in a particularly appealing way, because of the consonance (repetition) of the letter “l”:

Leaves falling,
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.

In such a verse there is no writer apparent to obstruct the reader’s experience of the falling leaves and the cold beating of the rain.  It really gives us a clear feeling of the season, a strong visual and auditory sensation, and that is characteristic of good hokku.

It reminds one a bit of the lines from A. E. Housman:

The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.

There is, in both, a sense of ending and finality — in one the autumn ending, in the other a life ended.


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.



Today I see the robins are out, and violets have begun to bloom.

In “organic” hokku, as we might call the modern system, we do not use specific season words to classify our hokku; instead we classify them by merely marking each verse with its season.  Nonetheless there are some subjects that are so obviously seasonal that one can see how the “season word” practice began, however it may have later degenerated and become impractical.

A violet is, of course, spring.  And where I live, it is one of the earliest signs of spring.

One thinks immediately of Wordsworth’s

A Violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the Eye!

That is in itself rather hokku-like in objectivity, but we should not forget that in the original verse Wordsworth is talking about a person for whom the violet is a metaphor, whereas in hokku we prefer the violet in itself and leave the person for other kinds of verse.

Wordsworth expands:

A Violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the Eye!
—Fair, as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky!

The last two lines are also something we would not do in hokku — we would not use a simile.  The violet is not “fair as a star” in hokku because in hokku we let each thing just be what it is, unlikened to, uncompared to, anything else.  Nonetheless these two lines do give us a glimpse of one of the principles of hokku, not in the simile (the comparison) but rather in remarking on how fair a star is when only one is shining.  This is the hokku principle that one thing is generally held to have more significance than many things.

That is why in old hokku — in a language that did not specify singular or plural — a subject is generally understood to be single unless there is a good reason for making it multiple.

The woman Naojo wrote

Sumu mo oshi    tsumanu mo oshiki    sumire kana
Pick too pity    pick-not too pity         violet   kana

A shame to pick it —
A shame not to pick it —
The violet.

Naojo is caught in her own attachment.  She is, as the old saying goes, like a dog at a pot of boiling fat; he can neither taste it nor leave it.  But what she tells us indirectly — indirectness being very appropriate for hokku — is how beautiful the violet is.  It is because of that delicate beauty that she finds herself caught in attachment.

It is very important that she does not simply tell us the violet is beautiful.  To do so is too direct, too crude, though sometimes one may find it done in hokku.  But she makes it quite clear through what she does tell us.

There is another violet verse by Gyōdai:

Sumire tsumeba    chiisaki haru no    kokoro kana
Violet picking         tiny  spring  ‘s  heart/mind kana

My translation of this differs slightly (but significantly) from that of Blyth.  Mine is:

Violet picking —
The tiny Mind
Of Spring.

Blyth, no doubt fearing such a translation would be misunderstood in English, went for the more easy

Picking a violet, —
The slender
Heart of Spring!

But to me there is an important element lost in that.  “Heart” in English does not have quite the meaning of kokoro in Japanese, which is also a spiritual term.  It is closer here to the word “mind,” but in this case it is not the “intellectual” mind.  Instead it is like the mind in the verse by Chiyo-jo, in which she tells us, speaking of gourds, that a hundred come from the mind (kokoro) of one vine.  This “mind” of one vine, like the “mind of spring” of Gyōdai — is the Mind of Nature, the Mind of the Universe.  As manifested in a Sequoia it is huge, as manifested in a violet it is the “tiny Mind of Spring.”

Blyth is right that it is the “Heart of Spring” in that one sees all of spring expressed in the tiny violet.

Still, one has to say of Gyōdai’s verse what Blyth says of Chiyo’s verses in general — that it is tainted with subjectivity.  Gyōdai is interpreting the violet for us, just as Chiyo gave us a little sermon in her verse on a hundred gourds from the mind of one vine.  But the best hokku neither interpret nor preach.

Yes, the violet is the tiny Heart of Spring, but it is a shame to say so.



As readers here know, I do not teach or advocate haiku, so some explanation is necessary for even discussing it on a site devoted to the hokku.

The modern haiku community has from its inception confused the hokku with Shiki’s revisionist term “haiku.”  But Bashō and Gyōdai, Buson and Issa did not write “haiku.”  They called what they wrote hokku, just as we do today.  That is an easily verifiable, historical fact.  And when hokku was first tentatively introduced to the West, it was known here as hokku too, though it was misunderstood in Europe and America from its first appearance, and was mistakenly viewed in terms of Western notions of poets and poetry, quite contrary to its essential nature.

To confuse matters even more, hokku (as Japanese hokku in translation) was not really popularized in the West until the middle of the 20th century, at which time it became widely known through the works of Reginald Horace Blyth, and to a lesser extent those of Harold G. Henderson.

Unfortunately, Blyth chose not to emphasize the historically correct term for the subject — hokku — and used instead the revisionist term then current in the Japan of the mid 1900s — “haiku.”  Henderson, a lesser light, did the same in his earliest book on the subject — The Bamboo Broom: an Introduction to Japanese Haiku (1934).

This unfortunate choice has come to be the source of endless confusion and misunderstanding, because almost all of what Blyth wrote about in his monumental “Haiku” volumes (all six of them) was really hokku, not haiku.  But when Blyth first began writing, he assumed that the hokku (as he appreciated it) was dead, that he was penning a kind of loving post-mortem.

But by the time he was finishing the last of these works years later (History of Haiku, Vol. 2, 1964), Blyth saw faint hints of a revival in, of all places, the English-speaking West, and it was his own earlier writings (Haiku, 4 vols., 1949-1952)  that were largely responsible for this new interest, which he hastened to encourage.  But again Blyth made a serious mistake in not providing simple, straightforward, clear, detailed, and systematic guidance on how a hokku was to be written, practically and aesthetically.  Instead, though he provided a treasure in his commentaries, he left far to much up to a reading public too impatient and unprepared to take advantage of Blyth’s unsystematic if penetrating presentation of the matter.

Harold Henderson made the same disastrous mistake, suggesting that it would be the “poets” themselves who would decide how the “haiku” (by which Henderson, like Blyth, really meant the hokku) would be written in English.  Both Blyth and Henderson failed to realize that Westerners were totally unprepared for the task, having virtually no understanding of hokku aesthetics and how they were to be applied in verse.  To his credit, Henderson did caution against the kind of extreme changes to the form and aesthetics that we find in much of what is called “modern haiku” today.  Already hearing the usual excuses of poetic freedom made for such distortions of the form, Henderson quoted G. K. Chesterton on freedom in the arts:

“...if you feel free to draw a camel without his hump, you may find that you are not free to draw a camel.

And that was what modern haiku largely became — people composing verses as the “camel without his hump” — hokku without its proper aesthetics — no longer a “camel,” and certainly no longer hokku.

Inevitably, Westerners projected their own misperceptions of the hokku onto the Western haiku, and thus mischief was immediately afoot and all the better efforts of Blyth and Henderson came to naught as Westerners promptly set themselves to remaking the hokku in their own images as the English-language “haiku.”

Thus, virtually at the beginning of the Western haiku movement, the damage of misuse of terminology had already been done, so the movement that began in the West in Blyth’s time was indeed a “haiku” movement, not a hokku movement.  And its aesthetics were Western self-made “haiku” aesthetics, based on Western poetic conventions and notions of poetry, not on those of the hokku.

It seems odd in retrospect that neither Blyth nor Henderson recognized sufficiently that the majority of Westerners who had become interested in writing “haiku” really had not the slightest idea how to go about it, and that letting such individuals set the future course of the verse form was just as illogical as making a child newly arrived on a ship its captain.

Western novices compounded the problem by virtually ignoring Blyth’s illuminating commentaries, and instead of remedying that deficiency by systematically studying old hokku to determine its form and aesthetics, they began plunging recklessly and headlong into writing a new kind of verse based not on hokku but on their personal misunderstandings and misperceptions of hokku, calling it — as Blyth and Henderson had done — “haiku.”  The results, generally, were astonishing in their mediocrity.  But really, what else could one expect?

That is the beginning of the Western haiku movement in a nutshell.  It is the result of those setting the course of the Western haiku movement generally choosing to ignore Blyth and to ignore Henderson’s warnings and cautions, preferring to go their own various ways, remolding the hokku to fit what they thought their new “haiku” in English should be, and endlessly confusing the general public in the process by misapplication of terminology and misinterpretation of hokku aesthetics and form.

Haiku is not hokku.  Haiku never was hokku, except perhaps in its earliest days in Japan when Shiki wrote his own brand of hokku and simply re-labeled it “haiku.”

But in the West — in English and in other European languages — haiku has always been a confused mess because people simply did not pay attention to what Blyth told them over and over again.  Instead,  they preferred to remake it in their own image, following the popular Western notion of the poet as rebel and revolutionary.

Haiku as a whole follows in the same pattern today, and instead of attempting to change it back into something closer to the hokku, one must simply let it go on changing, though its historical tendency in the West seems to be for it to degenerate into sterility and near extinction as anything other than a simplistic form of satirical verse.

If you have doubts about that, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years, 2016) covering the last century (somewhat haphazardly) in the history of the Western haiku (not hokku) movement. When you see everything from a short poem by Ezra pound to one-line and even one-word poems called “haiku,” it is obvious that the definition of “haiku” has changed drastically since Shiki began using it near the end of the 19th century. One amateur reviewer, after reading the book, wrote, “The book almost gives the impression that haiku has devolved.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

It will be obvious to the reader that I have a very low general opinion of modern haiku.  Nonetheless, it exists as a new category of Western verse created in the 20th century, and has an appeal for many Westerners that hokku does not have.  That is because the goals of modern Western society are in general so remote from the Nature-centered, more spiritual goals of the hokku that most people have no attraction to the kind of verses written by Onitsura and Bashō.  Like Blyth, I see this as a serious flaw in modern society, something to be lamented instead of celebrated.  It is symptomatic of the serious sickness of spirit that plagues modern culture the world over.

While distinguishing it from hokku, one must let modern haiku follow its own course.  It is best just to live a life of hokku and to let others do what they wish, which they always have done in any case and will continue to do.  Ultimately, one changes the world only by changing one’s self.



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.



Gyōdai wrote:

Aki no yama   tokorodokoro ni   kemuri tatsu
Autumn’s mountains   here-there at   smoke rises

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

It is a pleasant verse, and reminds one of Appalachia, of seeing smoke from cabins rising here and there among the gold and red leaves of autumn covering the hills.

But it is a verse of early to mid autumn, and now we are entering deep autumn, a more severe and chilly time that leads us directly on to winter.

There is a hokku by Shōhaku that can be understood as early or as late autumn, depending on whether we translate it by the old lunar calendar or by the newer calendar.  Under the new calendar it is:

I go nowhere —
No one comes.

Read thus, it expresses the beginning of the pulling away from the activities of life that we find in autumn as the days shorten and the nights grow longer, as Nature begins to wither.  One thinks of a hermit life amid the coloring and falling leaves.

The first line is literally “tenth month.”  It is like the old Quaker calendar, in which the months were numbered rather than named, but even more literally it is the “tenth moon.”

But what does “tenth month” mean?  Actually, two different things, depending on whether we read Shōhaku’s verse according to the modern calendar adopted in Japan during the Meiji period, or by the old lunar calendar of Shōhaku’s day.

We have seen that by the new calendar the “tenth month” is October.  But by the old calendar it is November.  So that gives us two different feelings expressed in the same verse, depending on which calendar we choose.

By the old calendar it becomes

I go nowhere —
No one comes.

This gives the verse a darker feel.  The leaves have already been swept from the trees by the rains and cold winds.  The gold and crimson colors are gone, giving way to bare branches and dim, grey skies.  Here the verse expresses the inhospitableness of the weather through the actions — or rather the lack of actions — of the writer.  He visits no one, no one visits him.  But it also expresses a kind of late autumn of the soul, an isolation and apartness that those growing older notice as they see they are no longer of interest to young people, and those their own age either have their own affairs to deal with with or have left this world.

All too often, it is the story of the elderly in America.  I remember  a Korean fellow I met in college.  He was staying in a cheap, rundown apartment building in which numbers of old people also lived, because it was all they could afford.  Watching their poor lives from day to day, seeing their isolation and how they were treated, he remarked to me, “America is Hell for old people.”  I have never forgotten that “outside” perspective on how this country treats its elderly.

But getting back to hokku, this growing isolation of individuals in the late autumn makes “things to the contrary” matters of significance.  That is why Buson could write

A person came
To visit a person;
The autumn evening.

It is quite a bland verse until one reads it in the context of the season as explained above.  There is a significance to making a visit in autumn, a significance to receiving a visit, and this significance too is expressive of the season.

By the way, I rather consistently translate the common line aki no kure, found in large numbers of hokku, as “The autumn evening.”  Technically it could also be translated as “Autumn’s end,” and that should be kept in mind not for linguistic reasons, but because it gives us a very good line for many hokku of the deepest part of autumn that is just about to become winter.

So for those of you interested in technicalities, the line can be understood either as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   evening

or as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   end

Shiki wrote this simple verse, which is a bit too interpretive for good hokku.  It is both true and not true:

I am leaving,
You are staying;
Two autumns.

Yuku ware ni    todomaru nare ni    aki futatsu
Go     I  at           remain      you   at    autumns two

One could loosely paraphrase it as:

With me going
And you staying,
There will be two autumns.

Shiki  is seeing the situation from a dualistic point of view:  When I am gone, we shall each experience our separate autumns.  But there is also the unitary point of view, in which you and I are both autumn, along with each reddening and falling leaf.  That is the wider perspective.

One must always keep in mind that when we are talking about weather and what is happening in Nature, a lot depends on where one is.  A month that is golden autumn for some is already icy winter for others.




Some Japanese hokku seem to defy translation into English, even though their meaning is not difficult.  An example is Kyoroku’s:

Descending geese —
Their cries pile on one another;
The cold of night.

As one group of geese comes down from the sky, followed by yet another, their cries seem to layer one upon the other.  This piling of cry on cry only intensifies the cold of the night.

Does this verse seem a little familiar?  It should, because it is similar to Gyōdai’s

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

In Japanese, forms of the word meaning “to pile up, to collect on one another” are operative in both, which I translate here as “pile on one another” in the first case and “lie on one another” in the second.


In old hokku, falling and fallen leaves are generally a winter subject.  But where I live, as well as in many other parts of North America, they are generally more appropriate to deep autumn.

Ryōkan wrote:

The wind
Brings enough for a fire —
Fallen leaves.

Have you noticed that old hokku often put the main subject of a verse last?  That gives us a kind of “wondering” buildup to the answer:  The wind brings enough what for a fire?  Then the answer — fallen leaves.

Buson does the same thing in another hokku:

Blown from the west,
They pile up in the east —
Fallen leaves.

To remember this technique, we might call it the “What is it?” technique.  In the first first, we ask “What is it the wind brings enough of?”  Answer:  Fallen leaves.

In the second we ask, “What is it that blows from the east and piles up in the west?  Answer:  Fallen leaves.

If you remember that, it will help you when an experience fits that technique.

Here is one of my very favorite hokku, by Gyōdai:

Falling leaves
Lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

Notice how this verse has a kind of parallelism reminiscent of old Chinese verse, and we can put the parts side by side like this for study:

Falling leaves lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

The first line has the subject fallen leaves and the action lie on one another.
The second line  has the subject rain and the action beats on rain.

In hokku we want to avoid perfect parallelism in all things, so in this one the third line — comprising the entire second part of the parallelism — is shorter than the first part.

Ryūshi wrote

The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

That is the regular setting-subject-action hokku.

The setting is “stillness.”

The subject is “the sound of a bird.”

The action is “walking on fallen leaves.”

Many old hokku are about the sound of one thing or another.  You will recall that the best-known of all hokku — Bashō’s Old Pond verse (a spring hokku), has “the sound of water.”

I will end today with another good hokku by Taigi, very expressive of the autumn season and its changes:

Sweeping them up,
Then not sweeping them up —
Fallen leaves.

At first the falling leaves are few, and easily removed.  But as autumn deepens they fall in ever greater numbers, until finally one just gives up and lets the season follow its course.

From this we learn that hokku is not simply a “moment in time,” but rather an expression of time and change.

And do not overlook that Taigi’s hokku also fits the “what is it?” technique:  What is that that we first sweep up, then do not sweep up?  Fallen leaves.