When we think of the Fall — of Autumn — we think of colored leaves, falling leaves, and of the moon.  We look at the autumn moon for a few moments, and then we move on with our lives, unless we happen to be sitting with someone else, engaged in intermittent conversation, looking repeatedly at the bright moon.

When old hokku was written, there was a seasonal practice of looking at the moon — of moon viewing.  Bashō  wrote a hokku about it.

Clouds now-then people give-rest; moon viewing.

Now when I talk about hokku here, I do not want to do so as though I am brushing the dust off old fossils in a museum.  I discuss it only so that readers may learn how to write NEW and original hokku.  Otherwise there is little point in repeating this or that old hokku over and over.  So the literal version of this verse does us little good unless we can see how to put it into English.  We can be very literalistic, which is how one should be in emphasizing the original verse, like this:

Clouds now and then
Give people a rest;

But my purpose here is to bring these old verses into today, as well as into the English language, so I would begin to play with it:

Passing clouds
Give us a rest;
Moon viewing. 

But I do not want to stop there, because long-time readers here will recall the old principle of hokku that one thing generally has more significance than many.  Here is what happens when we apply it to this verse:

A passing cloud
Gives us a rest;
Moon viewing.

It is a small change, but it makes a significant difference.  I hope you can feel that in the “revised” version.  If we say “passing clouds,” it widens the time expanse of the hokku.  In the first version, it covers the time of several clouds passing in front of the moon; in the second version, our focus is right on one cloud passing in front of the moon, right on what is happening now.

Not all hokku have this strong focus on the present, but those that do are often improved by it.  

Now you can easily see that the “single cloud” version is different from the original by Bashō, which covers a wider time expanse.  Some people may protest the revised version  because it is not exactly “what Bashō said.”  But that leads us to another principle of hokku — that it is a living thing, not a fossil in a museum.  

We are meant not only to enjoy old hokku, but to learn from them, so that hokku may remain a living practice.  And we can only do that by making them our own, or even by improving them.  Bashō was not infallible in his writing, and he wrote literally hundreds of verses that are not really memorable.  So we are perfectly free — particularly in teaching how to write hokku today — to change old hokku, whether to localize them (make them more American, or British, or Welsh, or whatever), or to improve them.  

In hokku as I teach it, we use the best of old hokku as models.  But as our practice develops, we must treat these models like clay that can be molded into new forms and into completely new verses.  As long as we keep to the principles and spirit of the old hokku, our new verses will be hokku as well.  We should not treat these old hokku like pieces of delicate porcelain that we are afraid to wash or carry for fear of “breaking” them.  

If you look in the archives here, you will find many old postings on hokku that tell you how to write it.  Generally in using the old verses, I have been rather literal, so that readers might see just how old hokku were constructed.  Now I am going to begin a new phase of instruction here, in which we learn to be more comfortable with our relation to the old verses.  I may often still tell you exactly how they were phrased in their old (Japanese) versions.  But in addition, I will put more emphasis on making them into hokku of today, so that they become even more useful to us in writing a hokku appropriate both to the English language and to our locale (which in my case is American), and to the modern world.

That does not mean I shall violate any of the basic principles of the old hokku — that would make a verse no longer hokku.  For example, being part of the modern world does not mean that our verses should reverse the old hokku omission of incompatible “technology,” because hokku today is still an important testimony to the vital importance of Nature and the natural environment that gives us life.  It simply means that we are learning to relax a bit in our hokku practice, to become more free in how we look at an event and depict it in our writing.  

That means, for example, that whereas old hokku generally had only a single internal break represented in English by internal punctuation, we are perfectly free to widen that punctuation and use it twice internally, if it makes a better verse.

Bashō wrote another “moon viewing” verse:

Bright moon; children lined-up temple verandah

The “bright moon” is a Japanese conventional term for the full moon of Autumn,   So Bashō is telling us:

The autumn moon;
Children lined-up
On the temple verandah. 

But we don’t have to leave it like that.  We can make it:

The Harvest Moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the front porch.

 We can even change “front porch” to “front steps” if we wish:

The Harvest Moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the front steps.

Or, given that we mark every hokku with its season, and will know it is an autumn verse, we can make it:

The full moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the garage roof.  

Or we can change “full moon” back to “Harvest Moon”:

The Harvest Moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the garage roof.

Or, recalling again the principle that one thing often has more significance than many, we can also create an alternate version:

The Harvest Moon;
A little boy sitting
On the garage roof. 

And of course we can make the little boy a little girl if we wish.  The possibilities for change are endless, and feeling free to make those changes is part of how we learn to write hokku.

And notice that in the last version, the reader is required to make a small, intuitive leap:  Harvest Moon + little boy sitting on garage roof = Little boy gazing at the Harvest Moon.  Such intuitive leaps should be very natural and easy for those schooled in hokku aesthetics.  They should be as simple as stepping from stone to stone when crossing a stream, and should not require any straining of the imagination.  That was not always the case with old hokku, and that is something modern hokku corrects.

So again, what this all means is that we should not treat the old hokku used as models here as inviolate objects; we should instead play with them, re-arrange them, use them as jumping-off points for our own exploration of the world and of hokku as we express the seasonal manifestions of Nature, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.




Unlike most other kinds of verse, the hokku is linked with the season in which it is written.  In fact one can say truthfully that whatever the obvious subject of a hokku, the real subject is the season in which it is written, and the “obvious” subject is just a manifestation of that season.

This reflects the spiritual roots of hokku and the view that things are not isolated phenomena, but are interconnected in  innumerable ways.  So interconnected, in fact, that an object or an event cannot exist in isolation, but only as a part of the Whole.  So when Bashō writes of a frog jumping into an old pond, this is as a manifestation of and expression of the season of spring.  If one does not know that, one does not know the entire verse.  And most Westerners do not know that, because the seasonal connection is lost in transmission.

In old hokku, however, there was really only one way to know definitely the season of a given verse, and that was to have memorized a long and detailed glossary of recognized “season words,” called kigo 季語 (ki = season, go = ) in Japanese.  If a given topic was not to be found in such accepted lists, it was simply not a subject for a verse.  And to recognize the season of any verse and to write within the system required minimally six years or more of diligent study and familiarity before one could begin to use the “season word” technique with any facility.

Further, if one had not memorized the long list of acceptable words and their appropriate seasons, one had to refer to a glossary of season words in order to identify the season of any given hokku.  Such a lengthy glossary was called a saijiki 歳時記 (sai = year, ji = time, ki =  record), which we can simply call a “season book.”  The season book listed the accepted kidai 季題 (ki = season, dai = subject) and as a subcategory for each season subject, the kigo, the season words, rather like a theme and variations.

All of this, of course, meant that the writing of old hokku was no simple matter.  In fact passing time only brought increasing complexity to this system, and in addition, for all practical purposes, it limited the range of one’s subject matter to the accepted themes and season words.  If one read a verse without recognizing the season inherent in it, one was obviously neither ready to read hokku nor to write it.

To those of us writing hokku today this seems like an unreasonable and intolerable burden, and though it had its advantages, they were far outweighed by its complexities.  It is perhaps somewhat surprising, then, that Masaoka Shiki continued this season word system after his much-publicized re-packaging of the hokku as his “haiku.”

In modern haiku, which as readers here know I consider largely a degeneration and distortion of the hokku, there are two approaches to season.  The great majority of writers simply ignore it, having divorced the modern haiku from season entirely.  A lesser number attempt to re-create the bulky season word system in a Western context, and there are actually those who are busy compiling new “season books” in English, which given the geographical, climatic, and biological complexity of the United States alone, is a somewhat eccentric undertaking.  And of course attempting to establish such a complex season word system in the West merely revives all of its associated problems, one of the most obvious of which is that no one outside the little group of writers using one of these new “season books” will have the slightest idea what the season of many of the poems written under it represent, because the general public  will not be part of the tiny “in group” using a given “season word” book.

Modern hokku, by great contrast, solves the matter of seasonal association of a verse in a remarkably simple, practical, and straightforward manner.  By doing so it maintains the virtues of the traditional seasonal connection of old hokku without the needless and rather pointless complexities and eccentricities of creating new “Western” season words and season books.

The modern hokku system is simply to mark each verse with the season in which it is written.  A writer will categorize all of his or her hokku by these seasonal markings into the categories of “Spring,” “Summer,”  “Autumn” (or “Fall”), and “Winter.”  When a verse is shared or published, the seasonal categorization goes with it.  It is such an eminently useful and practical and productive system that writers should immediately see its superiority to the old “season words” system.

As we have seen, the real subject of every hokku is its season.  The four-word seasonal categorization system simply utilizes this fact.  So if one were to use Bashō’s hokku as an example, it would appear like this when written:


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

And of course if it were to appear in an anthology, all “Spring” verses would appear under that initial heading, and the same procedure would follow with Summer, Autumn, and Winter categories.

Somewhat astonishingly, this reduces the thousands of season words necessary to reading and writing hokku with any comprehension under the old system to simply four — Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter — and these function simply as headings for a single verse or for an anthology of verses.

Thus in one fell swoop modern hokku demolishes and improves upon the season word system that caused so much needless complexity in old hokku and that continues to be pointlessly revived with its needless complexities in some segments of modern haiku.  Yet in doing so it does not abandon the essence of the matter — it retains firmly and with great practicality the indissoluble link between hokku and the seasons.  That has always been the practice in modern hokku in English:  To preserve the essence of old hokku at its best, without being slavishly literal in its transmission.  That is why modern hokku in English can be thoroughly American or British or Australian or Indian, etc., without abandoning the genuine essentials of hokku, and without any need for maintaining any of the culturally-limited baggage that potentially so hinders the verse form in its transmission from one culture to another and very different culture.



Mokudō wrote a very simple yet very effective spring hokku:

Harukaze ya   mugi no naka yuku   mizu no oto
Spring wind ya barley ‘s center goes water ‘s sound

I give the Japanese transliteration only to show how very faithful English can be to the sense of the original:

The spring wind;
Through the barley goes
The sound of water.

This verse uses internal reflection to great effect.  There is movement in the spring wind; there is movement in the sound of water passing through the field of barley.  And of course there is movement in the bending leaves of the green barley.

This is a verse showing us growing yang, which is appropriate to spring.  We see that in the movement of the spring wind, in the movement of the water, and in the rippling young barley, grown just tall enough to hide the water that flows through it.  That is why the writer mentions only “the sound of water” flowing.

There is no writer apparent in this verse, no “poet.”  There is only the wind and the barley and the sound of water.  Mokudo has managed to write a hokku that works exceedingly well without falling into mere illustration.  It is an excellent manifestation of spring.



I have discussed this early spring hokku by Onitsura previously, but I would like to deepen what was already said a bit:

On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

It is obvious that this is an early spring hokku from the frost on the barley.  It is like the weather where I am now — nights with temperatures dropping to the point of frost, but mornings that bring bright sunlight.

This poem is an excellent expression of beginning spring.  In fact if we were to put it more fully into English according to the principles of English-language hokku, we could rephrase it thus:

Frost on the tip
Of the barley leaf.

In English hokku we do not need the word “spring,” because each verse being marked with the season, we need not repeat it.

More important, however, is understanding how this verse works, and for this we go back to the fundamentals of hokku, the basic knowledge of the elements of Yin and Yang.

Cold — frost — is Yin, and it is representative of winter.  But the sprout of barley is young growth, which is growing Yang.  Also, the dawn — the beginning of the day — is growing Yang, which is overcoming the Yin of night.  So what we see in this verse is the first appearance of growing Yang both in the barley leaf and in the dawn, and the last lingering of Yin in the frost on the tip of the leaf that will soon be melted by the rising sun.  In short, this is all about growing Yang overcoming Yin, which is precisely what spring is.  And so this verse by Onitsura does precisely what it was intended to do — it manifests spring.

Compare such a verse, which is like a representation from the Book of Changes, with the mediocrity and self-centeredness of much of modern haiku, which has lost the spirit of old hokku and has forgotten the principles on which it was based.

It is important to remember, however, that when we read the hokku initially, we do not pause to analyze the elements; we just understand them instinctively, which is why the hokku is both simple and effective.  But it is important both for writers and for readers of hokku to understand WHY it is effective, thus the need for explanation.



It may seem odd to some readers that I have begun to write of Spring, but where I live that is what is happening.

Spring begins with the very weakest of Yang energies that melt snow and ice and sprout forth from the ground and from the enclosed buds of bare trees.  It is the change from the still and silent to the fluid and audible, as we can sense in this spring verse by Onitsura:

The waters of spring —
Seen here
And seen there.

Everything seems suddenly to be thawing, melting, and in motion trickles run out of the forest, across paths and into streams, little rivulets pool up an hollows and flow onward.

It may also seem odd to some readers that I include examples of verses by Shiki — the originator of the “haiku,” but as I have said many times before, much of what Shiki wrote was still hokku in all but the name he chose to give it.  He kept the connection with Nature and with the seasons.  I sometimes say that his verses tend to be “illustrations,” but that is very much in keeping with his theory of verse, which resulted in two-dimensional “paper” hokku at its worst, and pleasant if not deep verses at its best.  So we need not disdain what is good in Shiki simply because of what the world and his successors did to his “haiku,” which were generally just hokku.

The lake ice —
It is melted
By the ripples.

The little ripples of water created by wind and current lap against the constantly thinning edges of the remaining ice on the lake.  This is a verse of very early spring, and do not forget that both in Japan and in the ancient Western calendar of the British Isles, spring begins in early February.  So here we are seeing the gradual effect of the “yang” motion of the warming, moving water against the “yin” solidity and cold of the ice.

The snow —
Melted on one shoulder
Of the Great Buddha.

This is often the effect of sun and shadow.  Where the light strikes, the statue will warm and the snow will melt.  But it will linger on the shadow side — the Yin side, just as snow lingers in the Yin shadows of the forest floor, beneath trees with branches free of snow.

I hope it will be obvious to readers how very important the two elements of the universe — Yin and Yang — are in hokku.  Through hokku we see these two contrary forces in all stages of interaction.  But now, being at the very beginning of spring, Yin still predominates, though it must give way gradually to growing Yang.

Keep in mind all the internal harmonies of hokku involving Yin and Yang.  Beginning spring is Yang first manifesting, such as we see in the gestation to birth of a child.  In the day it is the time between midnight and the first paling of the horizon sky before sunrise.  In plants it is the first sign of the swelling and opening of buds, the very first shoots that appear above ground.  One could go on an on, but we have already seen in the verses used as examples here that it is also seen in the melting of the ice at the spring thaw, and the beginning of the “Yang” flow of the waters.

Of course ordinarily we think of water as a Yin element, and it generally is; but remember that Yang and Yin are always relative, always changing in reaction to one another, so even cold as it is, the flowing water of spring is more Yang than the very Yin state and solidity of ice and snow.

Spring begins.


I have long made no secret of the fact that in my view, the hokku tradition of Japan was greatly distorted when it was introduced to the West as “haiku.”  Instead of paying attention to R. H. Blyth, Westerners instead listened to the the haiku societies and self-made authorities that were busy re-making the hokku in their own image.  Consequently hokku was never really successfully transmitted to the West, but instead fell into the hands of those who used it for their own purposes, greatly changing it in the process.

That has been the situation since the middle of the 20th century, and if anything, that situation has become even worse today, as do-it-yourselfers continue to turn the hokku — misrepresented as “haiku” — into just another ill-defined kind of Western brief verse, with the only thing left of hokku being, in most cases, its brevity, and sometimes not even that.  Even when modern haiku enthusiasts claim to keep such elements of hokku as the focus on Nature and an emphasis on season, one finds that in practice they have no understanding of the aesthetic principles behind these elements.  It shows immediately in their writing.

For almost fifteen years I have been presenting a different view of hokku, one that restores what to me are its unique virtues as a kind of spiritual verse.  Over the years I have carefully explained everything from the form and punctuation of hokku in English to its aesthetics, including how it fits into the cycle of the seasons and how its focus is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of, not apart from, Nature.

Some fifteen years of presenting hokku should be sufficient.  If those reading about it here have not gotten the point in that time, one has reason to suspect they never will.  But of course new readers are always appearing, and one never knows when one among them will suddenly “get” what hokku is all about, in spite of all the baggage people may carry from exposure to modern haiku.

And if the times are unpropitious to hokku and its Nature-based aesthetic, one must simply not try to hasten the process; one must be patient and hope that once again humans will begin to recognize that Nature is their mother and father and their home, and that those who harm Nature harm themselves.

What does all this mean for this site?  It means simply that after discussing hokku and all its methods, techniques, and implications for such a long period of years, the time has come to relax a bit and to include discussion of other things — things beyond but still related in some way to the spirit of the hokku.  One might think that after years of writing on the topic, the hokku has been more than sufficiently discussed and explained in all I have presented here since I first began so many years ago, long before anyone else was teaching either hokku or haiku on the Internet.  But once one has developed a great interest in hokku, it just becomes a part of one’s life, and comes up naturally now and then in whatever one thinks and does.

Hokku is significant as a manifestation of a way of life and action, but there are other manifestations as well, other things I hope to discuss here — many of them not too far afield from the hokku and its atmosphere of poverty and simplicity and focus on Nature and the seasons.

We have just passed Halloween — Samhain in the old calendar — the end of the ancient year.  Now we go into the darkness and the cold of winter — the Yin time, the time of returning to the root —  out of which a new year will eventually be born.  The old cycle of the seasons continues, and this site will continue too, even though it is sure to change in one way or another over time, just as all things in Nature change in keeping with the workings of Yin and Yang.

Those of you who have studied hokku with me over the years really should now be on your own.  I have given you the knowledge, but if you are unable to provide skill and the right spirit, that knowledge will come to nothing.  I have done what I could.  And though I shall continue to talk about hokku, as time goes by it will increasingly be up to others to keep the hokku alive or to let it fall into decay and be forgotten.  I can only do what I can do, and all else is beyond my control.

Here is a variation on a winter hokku by Katsuri:

Travelers —
One by one they disappear
Into the falling snow.

That is life.  Things come and go, people come and go, and though I continue to talk about hokku here, I shall not be around forever to teach and explain it.  Whether or not the hokku falls into obscurity and is forgotten under the overwhelming deluge of mediocrity exhibited in modern haiku will be up to all readers of this site.  One hopes they will not let it happen, even though past experience with human notions of responsibility does not give great encouragement.



A reader has asked me to clarify a few points in this list (borrowed from R. H. Blyth) of the characteristics of hokku.  Though he asked about only three, perhaps it might be helpful to give some explanation of all, for those readers just beginning to learn about hokku:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

Comment:  Hokku has a relatively fixed form.  In English it consists of three lines, each line with an initial capital letter, and the whole fully punctuated.   It is separated into two parts (divided by appropriate punctuation), a longer part and a shorter part.  Further, it is set in a particular season.  But beyond this, hokku limits itself to subjects that do not trouble or disturb the mind, which is why it avoids topics such as war, violence, sex, and  romance.  These limits are willingly accepted by those who practice it, realizing that hokku (unlike modern haiku) is not whatever anyone wants it to be.  It has a definite purpose, and to achieve that, the limitations of hokku are seen as virtues rather than as undesirable boundaries.

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

Comment:  Hokku lays primary importance on experiences of the senses — taste, touch, hearing, smelling, seeing.  It avoids abandoning this concreteness for abstract “thinking,” for adding the comments and ornaments that are common to much of Western poetry.  In short, hokku are about experiencing, not thinking about an experience or analyzing it.

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

Comment:  Hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans in and as a part of Nature.  Nature is not treated unrealistically, nor is it used as a symbol or metaphor for something else.  The writer is always aware that Nature is a process of change — of constant impermanence –and that nothing can be permanently grasped or possessed.

4.  Lack of elegance.

Comment:  Hokku — unlike the old waka poetry of Japan — does not deal merely with subjects thought to be “high” and poetic; instead it shows us the poetry in ordinary things.  An excellent yet paradoxical example of this is Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming.

Here we have a simple flower blooming in a broken crock.  There is nothing “elegant” about the subject matter, in fact it is filled with a sense of poverty.  And though there is an elegance of simplicity in the way the subject is expressed, hokku avoids any materialistic elegance of status, of elevating “high” subjects above “low.”

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

Comment:  We have just seen an example of that in Onitsura’s verse.  The broken crock is obviously imperfect.  Imperfection is a characteristic of existence, and hokku is realistic.  It makes a virtue of such imperfections, seeing them as manifestations of the impermanence found throughout all Nature.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

Comment:  Those who have been reading here for some time know that hokku takes time to learn.  There are many helpful techniques and there are all the basic principles and underlying aesthetics.  And yet when the hokku is written, none of this should show.  The hokku should appear just as spontaneous and natural as a ripe pear falling from the branch, otherwise we are too aware of the writer and are distracted from the experience that hokku should convey.

7.  ”Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

Comment:  Poverty is very important in hokku and it means many things.  Essentially it is an appreciation of the simple things in life, the opposite of materialism.  In writing it means that we choose ordinary subjects, but present them seen in a new way.  It also means that in writing we limit ourselves to a certain amount of space, and to simple and ordinary words.  And it means that in hokku we are limited in how much we can say, and, as we have seen, there are limits too on the subject matter.  Hokku thus expresses the sense of the words “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” because it means that in accepting voluntarily such limitations, we avoid materialism and ego, preferring spiritual development.  This poverty is not seen as deprivation, but as the “empty cup” one must have so that something fresh and new may be poured into it.

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

Comment:  For Westerners, there is a vagueness built into hokku.  Because of its poverty, it never seems “finished” like a Western poem.  It seems to be saying more than is in it, but what that something is, is never clearly stated.  Instead it must be felt through having the experience of the hokku.  A hokku only gives us a part of the wider whole.  There is always something missing or hidden, because the poverty of hokku lets it only say and include just so much, and nothing beyond.  It is like an old Chinese painting in which we see a landscape with considerable portions hidden by mist.  Here is an example by Kyoroku:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

We always see the bright fronts of morning glory blossoms, but the wind of autumn blows them in such a way that we see the pale whitish reverse side.  We feel that there is a significance in this, but we cannot say what it is.  We are just to experience the verse, feel the autumn wind, see the pale “backs” of the morning glories, and have that feeling of unexplained significance — a mixture of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.  The verse is quite definite in what it shows us, but there is a vagueness underlying the whole that should not and cannot be clarified.  We see the indefinite through the definite.  There is more to a hokku than what it reveals, and yet what it shows us includes everything written and unwritten:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

9.  Human warmth.

Comment:  Because humans are seen as a part of Nature, the writer of hokku cannot help but see them as included in its impermanence.  Because of that, a compassion arises in the writer.  We know that human life is brief, and filled with sorrows and joys that both are temporary.  This compassion should not be “preachy” and obvious in hokku, but instead we should feel it behind a verse, like feeling the love of a mother pushing her child patiently in a swing — and it extends both to humans and to other creatures, as in this by Bunson:

The Harvest Moon;
In the dark places,
Insect cries.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

Comment:  Modern haiku enthusiasts often complain about the limits of hokku, saying that one should be able to use it for “protest verses,” for showing the horrors of war, for all kinds of purposes that really have nothing to do with what hokku is all about.  But hokku — particularly as I teach it — is a contemplative form of verse, meaning it should contribute to peace of mind rather than adding to the stress and worry of modern life.  Hokku shows us the peace behind all of life’s problems, and that is why in writing, it helps to have a peaceful mind.  Hokku is to take us beyond the continual emotional ups and downs and upheavals of life, to give us a little taste of what it means to live without an ego that is constantly fretting and desiring.  So in hokku there are limits to what one can or should do (you can see how this relates to all that has been previously discussed here).  The mind of the writer of hokku should be like a still pond in which the moon is reflected.  It cannot be so if stirred by fears and emotions.  And similarly, it should convey that sense of the peace underlying all the surface disturbances of life to the reader.  That is why we call it a form of contemplative verse — contemplative in the sense of peaceful and meditative, silent and free of ego and open to the experience of Nature.

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

Comment:  Hokku is a very spiritual kind of verse in that to write it, one must get the ego out of the way — if only temporarily — so that Nature may speak.  The writer should be like a clear mirror, free of the dust of emotions and desires.  When that mirror is wiped clean, Nature can be clearly reflected in it.  Unlike much Western poetry, in which the “poet” is considered important, in hokku the writer as “ego” is seen as an obstacle.  So the hokku writer must put the ego aside, and simply convey an experience of Nature, neither adding his thoughts and comments to it nor ornamenting it.  That of course includes omitting any obvious “preaching” about this or that, which is why when hokku talks about religion, it does so objectively.  One of the worst things a beginning writer of hokku can do is to write a lot of verses filled with obvious references to Zen or Buddhism or Christianity or meditation — filling them up with concepts about religion instead of with concrete experiences.  The spirituality of hokku lies in simply getting the ego out of the way.  That does not mean one cannot include any mention of religion, but that mention should be natural and never forced or “sermonizing” or obvious.  Issa, who sometimes failed in this, nonetheless gives us an example of a winter verse that is successful:

The Buddha in the fields;
An icicle hangs
From his nose.

Issa means, of course, an image of the Buddha.

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

Comment:  Hokku has little use for glory.  In hokku an orchid is not superior to a dandelion, nor is a beautiful young person preferable to one old and wrinkled.  In fact, given the choice, hokku will usually choose the ordinary over the extraordinary, the plain over the conventionally pretty.  In hokku a person with money has no greater value than a beggar in the streets.  In fact the latter is more likely to appear in hokku than the former.

Further, hokku tends to prefer one thing to many — a single flower instead of a huge bouquet, one person alone instead of a crowd.  That is why in old Japanese hokku, even though there is no indication of whether a subject is singular or plural, it is generally understood as singular.  One thing is felt to have more significance than many things.  Of course there are exceptions, but this is the general rule of thumb.

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

Comment:  Good taste in hokku is seen in the absence of things that disturb the mind, as well as in the absence of catering to mass taste.  It is seen in the poverty of hokku, as well as in its peaceful, contemplative atmosphere.  And it is seen in the writer’s selection of elements included in a verse, which nonetheless must appear natural and spontaneous, even if it took the writer weeks to get it “just right.”  Above all, good taste is seen in the selflessness of the writer, in his (or her) getting out of the way and allowing Nature to speak through a simple experience of the senses, set in the context of the seasons.  All of the principles of hokku contribute toward this sense of unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

Comment:  Hokku is not grand.  It is not loud.  It is not obtrusive.  It appears almost too brief to be worthwhile.  And yet it is in that very brevity and poverty and simplicity that we find the whole universe expressed in a falling leaf, in an ocean-smoothed pebble, in a crow on a withered branch at evening.  Where much of Western poetry is “in your face” and advancing, hokku is quiet and retiring, like Wordsworth’s “violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye.”   Because it does not try to be “all things to all men,” it is easily overlooked and undervalued, like a still, small voice.  But those of you who recognize the biblical allusion in that will know that its smallness does not mean it is to be underestimated.

And yet, as Blyth correctly says, hokku “is not much in little, but enough in little.”

To those in modern haiku, the poverty of hokku and its voluntary willingness to limit itself was never enough.  But that is the way of materialism, never to be satisfied, never to pause to realize that “enough” can be of greater value, ultimately, than “much.”  Haiku is always looking for more, always wanting something new and different and more modern.  Hokku, however, is quite satisfied with its own poverty and simplicity, making a virtue of the very things that for others are defects.

I hope these brief explanations help to give a better understanding of characteristics of hokku.  It is important to realize that these are not applied in practice like ingredients in a recipe — a pinch of poverty, a teaspoon of human warmth — but are rather to be regarded as overall characteristics, part of the “atmosphere” and aesthetics of hokku that give it is distinctive nature.



Here I have strung together some information on season in hokku, as well as a bit on the role of Yin and Yang:

The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.

First, the basics.

The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.

Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.

It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;

Dog tracks
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.

Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it.  True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way.  Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.

Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an autumn hokku:

The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.

First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves.  Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following.  We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before.  And then there is the age of the dog.  We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog.   We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace.  And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root.  The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past.  Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku.   And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified.  That makes for good hokku.

So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another.  Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.

We have seen Bashō’s hokku,

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku.  So that is the seasonal context.  Autumn is the decline of Yang into Yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity.  It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night.  And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow.  And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (Yang) to inactivity (Yin).  And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn.  So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.

We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku.  That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W.  The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku.  Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.

What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening.  Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening.  But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn.  And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.

There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast – of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream.  Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination.

For now, keep in mind these essentials:

Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.

Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.

Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.

Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.

It is very easy to superficially notice, or to unthinkingly gloss over, the critical importance of season in hokku.  It is not going too far to say that hokku is the verse of the seasons — that the REAL subject of every verse is the season in which it is written.

Seen from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the writers of old hokku placed so much emphasis on the importance of season that subjects were classified by season, and these classifications — specific words indicating the season and incorporated into the hokku — were compiled into dictionaries.

The great advantage of such a system is that one had only to mention the word in the verse and the season was evoked.  For example the word “haze” in a hokku let the reader know immediately that it was a “spring” hokku.  That was a great benefit.  But there was also a negative side.  The classification of season words became artificial to some extent, and the numbers of them so great that learning how to properly use them took years.

That is why in hokku as I teach it, we still emphasize season, but no longer keep lists or classifications of season words.  Instead we categorize every hokku by season.  Each verse — when written — is marked with the season.  And when shared that seasonal classification is passed on with the verse.

There is a very serious potential danger in this system too, however, if it is understood only superficially and not deeply.

The danger is precisely this:  Some writers think that merely categorizing a verse by season makes it a verse OF that season — that if I write, for example, about getting a drink of water as autumn begins, that automatically makes it an autumn verse.

This is a very serious error, and it is related to the equally serious error of thinking that hokku are just assemblages of random things.

The whole point of the use of season words in old hokku — and the point of seasonal classification in modern hokku — is to express the essential nature of the season through events in which that essential nature manifests.

This is not really as difficult as it first sounds.  We all know that pumpkins, scarecrows, and falling leaves are manifestations of autumn.  Even a child recognizes them as autumn subjects.  BUT THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.

Did you ever wonder why I talk so much about such things as Yin and Yang?  It is because they are direct pointers not only to what is happening in a season, but to what manifests a season — meaning what evokes its essential nature.

NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON.   And so of course, things that do not manifest that essential nature are not really appropriate for hokku of that season, though they may be appropriate for many other kinds of verse.

If you want to write hokku, then, you must be aware of the character of  each season, of its inherent qualities.  One can begin such learning — which is really a becoming aware — very simply, and then gradually build up a deeper understanding of these things.  Anyone knows intuitively, for example, that spring is what is young and fresh and new, summer is maturity, autumn is declining and withering, and winter is the prevalence of darkness, cold and stillness.

In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin.  That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature.  In the day, morning is growing Yang (declining Yin); noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang (growing Yin), and the middle of night is maximum Yin.  In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.

In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it begins to change into its opposite, and gives way to growing Yin.

Summer, then, is extremely Yang.  That is manifested in its heat.  Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness.  Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows.  Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows.  The same applies to moisture, which is Yin.  In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.

Consider all of this carefully.  We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology.  But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.

The important things to remember now are that Hokku, the verse of Nature, is also the verse of the seasons; and further, that there are things appropriate to each season because they manifest its character.  And those things that do not show us the character of the season are not appropriate for hokku written in that season.

I hope this comes as a revelation to many of you.

Knowing this explains why specific season words were so critical to old hokku.  They were an attempt to express a season by listing things in which the character of the season was manifested.  Though it had its flaws, we could say that the system of specific season words is the “easy” way;  what is theoretically appropriate to a season is already decided and codified in a dictionary of season words.

But in modern hokku more is demanded of us.  We are able to avoid the artificiality and complexity to which the use of specific season words eventually led because we replace them with simple seasonal classification of each verse.  But as a consequence, we must become  far more personally aware of what is inherently, aesthetically appropriate to each season.  Otherwise no matter how we classify a verse by season, if we do not understand the inherent nature and character of a season and the resulting aesthetics appropriate to it, we will fail miserably at hokku.

What this means is that we must become more like our ancestors, who were keenly aware of each season, its weather, its changes, characteristics, foods and cultural associations.  That is why I have been posting recently about the traditional calendar and the flexible “hokku” calendar.

In previous postings I have talked about how hokku intimately relates to Nature and the seasons, and I have said that the key to hokku is understanding that it expresses the seasons in its subject matter.  Merely setting a hokku in a given season is not enough; the hokku must express that season in one of its many manifestations, whether it is reddening leaves, falling leaves, a garden withering, pumpkins, Halloween, and so on.

It should be obvious, then, that the more one is in touch with Nature, the more one will be able to express the nature of a season through understanding natural changes in the world and life around us, as well as in ourselves.  One can hardly find a better example of such keeping in touch with Nature than the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, who meticulously noted seasonal changes in the area of Concord, Massachussetts, in the 19th century.  We can hardly write with much versatility about autumn if we do not know what Nature is doing in autumn.

Of course there are many good hokku to be written from obvious autumn subjects, but a wider range comes only from learning the changes of Nature from season to season in the place where we live .  Autumn in New England will be somewhat different from autumn in the Cascade foothills of the Northwest, and autumn in the Salinas Valley will be different from both.  And of course we can say the same of autumn in the Basel region of Switzerland, autumn in the east German region of Bautzen, autumn in the Netherlands, or autumn in Norway or Finland or the south of France, the West Country of England, or the Rhondda Valley of Wales.

Given the huge range of local variation in life and climate, it has simply become impractical to write hokku based on the old season word system, even overlooking its other faults.  That is why the “natural” system is preferable in our time.  The natural system is the “Thoreau” system — becoming familiar with Nature in its seasonal changes and manifestations in the plant and animal world around us, not just in the category of “human affairs” or the obvious aspects of autumn.

In hokku old and new, there are two ways of relating to the seasons.  One is fixed and somewhat artificial (old hokku), the other natural (new hokku).

The “fixed” way is the compiling of season words and season dictionaries, and spending years learning them and how to apply them.  But even then, the result will generally be overlooked or unperceived by those who do not write hokku.  So the use of fixed season words is rather like an esoteric language that can in many cases be understood only by initiates.  This was the system that gradually developed and became more complex and artificial in old hokku.  It has its benefits, but it also presents writer and reader with major difficulties.

That is why in modern hokku, the old system of season words has been dropped.  It was, after all, only a means of linking hokku to the seasons, and when another and more convenient means is used, it is no longer necessary.  In modern hokku that new method is marking each verse with the season in which it is written.

The important thing — and of course the fundamental characteristic of hokku — is its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All hokku then, ideally, reflect an event happening in the context of a season.  But that is only the first stage of learning hokku, and without the next step, it is incomplete.  To take us to the next stage — to genuine hokku rather than just some kind of haiku or other brief verse — we must write verse not only of an event happening in the context of a season, but also that event must reflect or express the nature of the season.

As I said in an earlier posting, this is truly the key to hokku — the realization that it expresses the nature of the season in which it is written.

Some topics are self-evident.  In spring we may write about the return of wild geese, and in the fall — in autumn — we write about the departing wild geese, as well as other birds such as ducks and swans whose migratory patterns are most obvious to us in those seasons.  That does not mean, of course, that we cannot write about geese, ducks, or swans in summer, but when we do so, it must be done in a way that reflects the nature of the summer, just as lines of wild geese crossing the sky as they fly southward reflect the nature of autumn.

Those learning hokku would do well to keep in mind the old categories in which hokku were placed:

The Season – the season itself, in settings such as “Autumn begins.”

The Sky and Elements – for example “The October sky,” or “The autumn wind.”

Gods and Buddhas – Religious figures or activities that express the season in one way or another.

Fields and Mountains – withering fields, autumn mountains, etc.

Human Affairs — all the things people do that are characteristic of autumn, such as a change to heavier clothing, or a child returning to school.  Included are such things as scarecrows that we think of particularly in autumn.  And of course Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Birds and Beasts – such things as wild geese leaving, and animals beginning hibernation, etc.  And do not forget the “creepy-crawlies,” — insects, etc.

Trees and Flowers – Red leaves, falling leaves, blooming chrysanthemums,  withering flowers in the garden and other such things.

Keep in mind these categories, and they will help you greatly in selecting and in eliminating subjects for hokku.

It is important to remember that just placing a verse in a seasonal context by marking it as spring, summer, autumn or winter does not quite achieve hokku.  To take that last step, one must not only put the verse in the context of the season, but one must also express the season through the elements used in the verse and their interaction.  Those elements must work in harmony to present a unified verse in which some aspect of the season is perceived in a way that is felt to be significant.



In studying contemplative hokku, a very good way to begin learning is by using patterns.

Patterns are hokku “frameworks” that we can use for writing countless new hokku.  By using them we learn the feel of the hokku form, and by changing the elements of a pattern we learn gradually to write original verses.

One of the most common patterns in hokku is the “standard” pattern, which consists of setting, subject and action.  For example, Shiki wrote:

A summer shower;
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We can easily use that as a pattern, replacing adjectives and nouns and verbs, etc.,  to make any number of new hokku.

Here is an article I wrote some time ago (you can see that I wrote it in autumn).  It shows how to use old hokku as patterns for learning to write new hokku:

Let’s begin by working with a slightly different pattern, a hokku by Gyōdai:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

And here is how one uses a hokku as a pattern for learning:

All parts of it can be changed, as long as one keeps the same basic form.

We can see that this is a standard hokku, meaning that it has a setting (the autumn hills) a subject (smoke) and an action (rises here and there).  These three elements need not be divided precisely line by line.  For example in this verse, the subject is found at the beginning of the third line, while the action is divided between the third line, where the verb is found, and the second line.

Do not worry about the order in which subject and action come, but rather just be sure there is a subject and an action.  We will keep the setting as the first line for this practice.

In the model verse, the setting is

The autumn hills;

That is an adjective followed by a noun.

We can change both the adjective and the noun.  We could make it:

The blue hills;
The distant hills;
The high mountain;
The deep forest;
The clear water;
The windy gorge;

And so on to infinity.

We can also change “the” at the beginning to “a” or “an.”

Because we are beginning autumn, whatever setting we choose as our adjective-verb  should relate to autumn (this changes according to the current season).  And we can make our start as easy as we wish at first, and then we can vary more and more elements as we gain experience.

As an example, we could use the same setting and only vary the subject and action:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Trees redden.

Now obviously that is rather mediocre, but in the beginning do not worry about making the “practice” hokku you write from patterns great hokku; improved content will come gradually.  Instead, focus on making the hokku fit the season and on following the pattern as you replace or vary elements within it.

We could also keep the same subject and action, and practice different first-line settings;

An old village;
Here and there
Smoke rises.


The autumn fields;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Once we begin getting the feel of it, we can vary both setting and subject and action, and we can also work on improving content:

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Scarecrows lean.

Again, remember that we are not looking to rival great hokku in our beginning practice.  We are just learning, first, to use a model; second, to be in keeping with the season; and third, to practice our freedom in varying the elements of the model.

Now what is the point in all this?

Beginning hokku is like wearing a toolbelt with lots of empty pouches, but no tools.  Each model we practice puts a tool in a pouch of our belt.  And then when one actually has an experience in Nature, one can use this tool — this pattern — as a way to organize that experience.  The more patterns we learn, the more options we have for organizing.  And you will find that as you practice these basic patterns, they will readily come to mind when you do have an experience and want to write it down.

In working on these patterns, keep in mind that the setting is usually the wider context in which something happens.  It can be a place, the weather, the season — usually the BIG part of the hokku into which the subject and the action fit, like in the model.  The smoke rising here and there happens in the BIG setting of the autumn hills.

The subject — aside from the setting — is what the verse is “about,” in this case “smoke.”  And the action is something involving the subject that is moving or changing.  In this case the smoke “rises here and there.”

Now you have the first tool that fits in your hokku workbelt.  You only have to practice using it for it to become very practical and helpful.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this, or need help with some problem in your practice, feel free to ask me by posting a comment to the site (only I shall see it).  And feel free, if you wish, to show me your progress and ask advice as you need it.

It is very important that if you really want to learn hokku, you practice these patterns carefully, making your changes and replacement of elements as simple and gradual as you like.  Go at your own pace, without being lax.  Do not make things too hard for yourself at first.  But again, as you get more practice in replacing elements in the pattern, and begin to get the sense of how it works, you can replace more elements and make your variations more different.  And as you do that, you can also work on content, keeping in mind all that I discuss in other postings.  Gradually your hokku — even your practice hokku — will improve.

Do not do it just once or twice; keep making variations of all kinds on a pattern until doing so comes quite easily.  That will make it much easier, eventually, to write hokku from your own direct experiences.

How well learning from patterns works depends on how hard the student works, and how well the student can absorb and express the aesthetics and spirit of hokku.  I have talked about these aspects in other postings.

Working with patterns is a first step on the path of hokku.  Taking it is up to you.

There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best.  Here is one (out of season at present):

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have a range of options.  ”Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  ”ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct — never complicated or confusing.

Remember, however, that the hokku I present are not here merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.  But you may be surprised at what interesting verses you can write as you begin to use models — hokku patterns.

We can take today’s practice hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the English language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse, which I would translate as:

Even on the small island –
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which — following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century –began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.

I have mixed verses of different seasons in this posting — which can be done for educational purposes — but remember that when you do the pattern work, you should use replacements that put the verse in the PRESENT season, which now would be autumn.



I have written previously about this statement by R. H. Blyth on hokku.  He tells us that a hokku

“...is the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure further the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

Some people no doubt find that statement — short as it is — confusing.  But that is because they mistakenly assume that Blyth does not mean what he says or say what he means.  But he does.

What does it mean to wish not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, thoughts and feelings?

In this question lies one of those keys that can open up the real nature of hokku to us, if we will only use it.  It is simple to explain, but one must pay attention in order to understand.

If you sit in the woods on an autumn day, with its weak, honey-colored sunlight, and the leaves of the trees slowly falling one by one, that is “truth” — that is “suchness.”  It is that experience we want to convey.  But if we want to write “poetry” about it, that means we want to make it into something other than what it is in itself.  It means we want to “doll it up” literarily, and to do that we have to add things to it — our words, our thoughts, our feelings.

The experience as it is, is truth — is suchness — is poetry — but it is not the poetry of humans, who think they have to make things over, “soup them up,” use them as symbols or metaphors, add comments, add “thinking.”  But in hokku we do not want all of that, because the real writer of hokku has precisely that urge “not to speak, not to write poetry.”

People in modern haiku, not understanding this at all, often ridicule it.  They have no idea what we mean when we say that hokku is not poetry.  “Of course it is!” they insist.

But really, it is not.  At least it is nothing like what we are accustomed to think of as poetry, and this is where modern haiku goes horribly wrong.  Instead of letting the thing itself speak through its existence, through its action, they think there must be a “poet” who interferes, who somehow stands between “truth” and the laity as a priest used to be considered the only way for people to approach a deity.

It is true that hokku uses words, but only the minimal number necessary to convey the experience while maintaining normal English.  It does not obscure the experience with words, but rather uses them transparently in order to reveal it, as Boshō does here:

A chestnut falls;
The insects cease their chirping
In the grasses.

That is precisely the truth — the suchness — that we do not want to obscure with words or distort by making it into “poetry” through adding our thoughts and feelings to it.  Now do you see what Blyth meant?  If you do, it can open up a completely new way of writing.  If you don’t, you will spend your time trying to be a “poet” who writes “poetry.”

Hokku is not writing poetry; it is simply allowing the poetry inherent in an experience to be seen.  And those are two very different things.



Yesterday I discussed three “Western” calendar systems relevant to hokku — the traditional calendar, the meteorological calendar, and the “natural” calendar.  The first is astronomical, and depends on the relationship between the sun and the earth; the second shows us the times of the actual affects of the solar-earth relationship; and the third is based on observation of what is happening in Nature and when it is happening — the sprouting of things, their growth and maturing, their withering, their dying.

After reading that article, some of you may have found the astronomical traditional calendar interesting, but perhaps you thought it a bit irrelevant to hokku.  But it is not.  Let’s take a look for a moment at the calendar actually used by those who originally wrote hokku in old Japan, and simultaneously I shall show you how it relates to our old and traditional Western calendar with its “quarter days” and “cross-quarter” days.

On comparing our old traditional calendar with the old calendar of Japanese hokku, we find something very interesting.  They go together very well, like this:

Our calendar begins with  Candlemas on February 1/2; speaking more generally, spring begins the 1st week of February.
In the Japan of old hokku writers, spring similarly begins on February 4th, and these are its divisions:

Risshun, (立春): February 4 — Spring begins;
Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water;
Keichitsu(啓蟄): March 5—Insects awake;

The spring Midpoint in our traditional calendar is the Spring Equinox:  March 21 /22.  In the Japanese hokku calendar it was similarly:
Shunbun (春分): March 20— the Spring Equinox, the middle of spring;
Seimei (清明): April 5—Clear and bright;
Kokuu (穀雨): April 20—Grain rain;

Our traditional spring Ends on the evening before May 1st; then comes May 1st, which is May Day (Bealtaine) and the first day of our summer:

begins for us on:  May Day, May 1st, 1st week in May.  Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, summer began thus:

Rikka (立夏): May 5—Summer begins;
Shōman (小満): May 21—Grain sprouts;
Bōshu (芒種): June 6—Grain in ear;

Our summer Midpoint happens on  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20 /21.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint happened on:

Geshi (夏至): June 21—Summer Solstice, the middle of summer.
Shōsho (小暑): July 7—Small heat;
Taisho (大暑): July 23—Great heat;

The End of our summer happens on the Evening before Lammas; then comes Lammas — Harvest Home — Lughnasa, August 1st, 1st week in August.  On Lammas our autumn begins.

For us it begins with Lammas — Harvest Home (Lughnasa), August 1st.  1st week in August.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers it took place thus:

Risshū (立秋): August 7—Autumn begins;
Shosho (処暑): August 23—Heat finishes;
Hakuro (白露): September 7—White dew;

Our Midpoint is the Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint was:

Shūbun (秋分): September 23— the Autumn Equinox, the middle of autumn.
Kanro (寒露): October 8—Cold dew;
Sōkō (霜降): October 23—Frost descends;

Our autumn has its End at the Evening before Samhain, November 1st.  1st week in November.  Then on Samhain our winter begins.

Our winter begins with Samhain, November 1st, the 1st week in November.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, winter began thus:

Rittō (立冬): November 7—Winter begins.
Shōsetsu (小雪): November 22—Small snow;
Taisetsu (大雪): December 7—Great snow;

Our winter Midpoint is Midwinter’s Day — the Winter Solstice — Great Yule, December 21 / 22.
Similarly, the old Japanese Midpoint was:

Tōji (冬至): December, the Winter Solstice — the middle of winter.
Shōkan (小寒): January 5 — Small Cold—also called 寒の入り (Kan no iri) The Entrance of the Cold’
Daikan (大寒): January 20—Great Cold;

Our winter had its End on the evening before Candlemas, February 1st, 1st week in February.
Similarly, as we have seen, for the old Japanese hokku writers, winter ended on February 3rd.

And here for us the cycle begins again with Candlemas (Imbolc) February 1st.
For the old writers of Japanese hokku, it began again similarly with Risshun (Beginning of Spring) on February 4th.

Now, what does all this mean to us today?  It means simply that if we follow the old and traditional Western calendar, we shall essentially and with only slight variation be following the same old calendar by which hokku was written in Japan.  And incidentally, that old Japanese calendar was actually borrowed from the Chinese, so the Japanese hokku calendar was the same as the Calendar used by Chinese poets.

So when we use the old and traditional Western calendar, we are, with little variation, following the same general calendar as the ancient poets of China and Japan.  The names vary from place to place, but the times are essentially nearly the same.



The seasons are very important to hokku.  But when we look a bit closer, we find we have both formal and natural calendars:

The old traditional European calendar — now a formal calendar — was divided into four seasons, each with a festival at its beginning, its middle, and its end.  The end point also marks the beginning of the next season.  I give it here using traditional English and Irish names.  The notation “The first week” indicates that the day on which it begins had some variation in old usage.


Begins with Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  1st week of February.
Midpoint:  Spring Equinox, March 20/21.
End:  the evening before May Day (Bealtaine pr. BYAL-tuh-nuh).  1st week of May.


Begins with May Day (Bealtaine).  1st week of May.
Midpoint:  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20/21.
End:  The evening before Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa pr. LOO-nuh-suh), August 1.  1st week of August.


Begins with Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa), August 1.  1st week of August.
Midpoint:  Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
End: the evening before  Samhain pr. SOW-uhn), November 1, marked by Halloween on October 31st.  1st week in November.


Begins with Samhain, November 1st.  The 1st week in November is marked by Bonfire Day.
Midpoint:  The Winter Solstice  Midwinter’s Day — Great Yule, December 21/22.
End:  The evening before Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  The 1st week in February.

We can simplify the traditional calendar for the purposes of hokku:


Spring begins:  Around February 1st.
Spring deepens:  Around March 20/21.
Spring ends Around May 1st.

Summer begins:  Around May 1st.
Summer deepens:  Around June 20/21.
Summer ends:  Around August 1st.

Autumn / Fall begins:  Around August 1st.
Autumn / Fall deepens:  Around September 21/22.
Autumn / Fall ends:  Around November 1st.

Winter begins:  Around November 1st.
Winter deepens:  Around December 21 /22.
Winter ends:  Around February 1st.

Now you may be thinking that makes no sense.  Spring, where you are, may begin in May!  The preceding calendars are “formal” — the first astronomical and the second meteorological.   But in hokku, with its lack of artificiality, we may be flexible and informal.  The seasons are not the same in all places.  Winter comes earlier in mountain regions than in lowlands, and spring comes later.

The so-called “meteorological calendar” recognizes, for example, that though the time of maximum sunlight comes at Midsummer, nonetheless its effects are not felt until some four weeks later.  That shifts the seasons, loosely speaking, by about a month.  We then have a calendar like this:

Begins:  March
Midpoint: April
Ends:  May

Begins:  June

Midpoint:  July
Ends:  August

Autumn / Fall:
Begins:  September
Midpoint:  October
Ends:  November


Begins:  December
Midpoint:  January
Ends:  February

Given these different approaches to the seasons, which is the writer of hokku to follow?

The answer is simple.  Use the traditional formal calendar for times and seasons and celebrations, and with that, use a “natural” and flexible calendar that  reflects the seasonal changes of Nature where you are.  We all know that spring does not really begin punctually on February 1st or March 1st or at the Spring Equinox in the natural world.  If you first see sprouts and buds poking through the earth some time in February, that is when your spring begins.  If it happens in March, that is when your spring begins.  Go with the natural climate and weather where you are, which may be very different from the natural calendar of other people living in other regions.  Some very warm parts of the world may have only two main seasons, a dry season and a rainy season.  One is their “summer,” the other their “winter.”

I live in a temperate and moderate climate much like that of the British Isles, so it is no problem for me to follow the old traditional calendar, with Spring beginning with its first signs in February — though in some years, February can be a very cold month.

The traditional calendar provides a pleasant way to maintain a connection with our ancestors and their seasonal times and celebrations, but we should pay close attention to the “natural” calendar where we live as well.   So we can celebrate the important old “Quarter Days” — the Winter Solstice (Great Yule), the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solstice (Midsummer’s Day), the Autumn Equinox — and we can also celebrate the old “Cross-Quarter Days” — Candlemas, May Day, Lammas, and Samhain (marked by Halloween the night before).  But in addition, we always keep a close eye on what is actually happening in Nature, and on when it is happening.  That is our real guide to the seasons in hokku.

So here, without attached dates, is the “natural” calendar of hokku, which you apply to each year and region a bit differently.  But the order remains the same:

Spring begins
Spring deepens
Spring departs

Summer begins
Summer deepens
Summer departs

Autumn begins
Autumn deepens
Autumn departs

Winter begins
Winter deepens
Winter departs

See how very simple it is?  When you see the signs of spring beginning in Nature, that is when it begins for your hokku.  When you see it advancing, that is when spring deepens in your hokku.  And when you begin to see the changes that signify its ending and the transition to another season near, that is when spring is departing in your hokku.  Just apply this principle to each season.


The principles of Yin and Yang and their interactions and transformations give us the seasons of the year.  You will recall that Yin is cold, Yang warm.  Yin is passive, Yang active.  Yin recedes, Yang advances.  Yin is wet, Yang is dry.  Yin is still, Yang moving.  Yin is silence, Yang is sound.  Yin sinks, Yang rises.

Remembering also that when Yin or Yang reaches its farthest point — its maximum — it begins to change into its opposite, we are now ready to look at the real calendar — the seasons according to Yin and Yang.

Midwinter is ultimate Yin.  At this point Yin reaches its maximum and begins to change into its opposite.  Yang first begins to grow within it.  So Midwinter is a pivotal point, the lowest on the turning wheel of the year.

Its opposite is Midsummer, when Yang reaches its maximum and then begins to change into its opposite.  Yin begins to grow within it.  So Midsummer also is a pivotal point — the very height of summer, when it then begins its long decline into winter.

The Spring Equinox — a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of growing Yang, because it comes after Midwinter.  Yang continues to grow until Midsummer, when it then begins to change into its opposite.

The Autumn Equinox — again a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of decreasing Yang and growing Yin, because it comes after Midsummer.  Yin continues to increase until Midwinter, when the cycle begins again.

We see, then, that the seasons are in constant change and movement as Yin and Yang interact with one another.  As Yang increases, Yin declines.  When Yang reaches its ultimate, Yin begins to increase within it, and Yang declines.  This is a perpetual cycle, the turning Wheel of the Year.  We can look at the seasons like this:

Winter: Yin
Spring:  Growing Yang
Summer:  Yang
Autumn /Fall: Growing Yin

So we see there are two Yang seasons — spring and summer — and two Yin seasons — autumn and winter.

All of this has profound significance in hokku.  Hokku is the verse of the seasons, so whatever the apparent subject of a verse, the real subject is the season in which the verse is written.

That means every hokku should manifest and express the qualities of the season.  That is why in spring we may talk about budding flowers, in summer about the heat, in autumn about falling leaves, and in winter about snow.  These are just some very obvious examples of seasonal manifestations.  The seasons actually manifest themselves in hokku in a multitude of ways, which is why the possibilities for hokku are endless.



R. H. Blyth gives a good summary of the characteristics — the nature — of hokku.  In that summary we find:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

4.  Lack of elegance.

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

7.  “Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

9.  Human warmth.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

I hope those who read here will think about these and how they apply to the hokku we have discussed thus far, or to those read elsewhere.  Perhaps in the future — or if people have questions — I will expand on these characteristics.



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.



Autumn has begun.

Autumn is the declining of the life energies in Nature.  We see it in the withering of grasses and plants, in the yellowing and coloring and, eventually, the falling of the leaves.  In America our “native” name for the season is the Fall, and that is what it is — the fall of the leaves.  It is also the fall of the turning wheel of the year from the Yang height of summer to the deep Yin of winter.

In hokku it is very important that things reflect one another, that they are harmonious even in difference.  The declining of vital energy in the autumn is in keeping with late afternoon in the day.  In human life, it corresponds to the time when a person grows old, the “autumn of life,” as people say.  Autumn is a time of the calming of the energies of summer, a time when Nature prepares to go inward, to “return to the root” as we see in plants whose upper leaves wither as the energy to survive winter begins to concentrate in their roots.

Autumn is a time of change, of preparation for the harshness and stillness and poverty of winter.  Animals store their food or prepare for hibernation; birds, as the air cools, begin their great journeys southward across the skies.  Even humans like to find, when possible, a secure place to spend the coming winter.

Autumn, then, is the declining of Yang energy and the increasing of Yin, a movement toward the predominance of stillness and silence over activity and sound.  It manifests all through the season, for example in the cries of migrating wild geese high overhead that quickly pass and disappear in the distance, and in sudden storms that fade eventually to silence.

We see autumn, then, in things that are aging and things that are old; in fading leaves, in bleached boards, in withering plants, and old people with grey hair and slowing step.  We see it in the chilling of the air and the return of the rains, and of course in the decline of the path of the sun in the sky and the shortening of the day.

Scarecrows are a favorite subject for hokku in autumn because they manifest the character of the season so well — its aging, its frailty, its deepening poverty, its weakness:

Kyoroku wrote:

The scarecrow is blown down;
The storm

That shows us the frailty and weakness that are in keeping with the season, in spite of the strength of the storm.  And of course we can say of the scarecrow — as Nyōfu does here,

It is old
From the day it is made —
The scarecrow.

That is what makes it such an expressive manifestation of the autumn — its poverty, its weakness, its inherent frailty.

The scarecrow, we must note, is not a metaphor for anything; it does not symbolize or represent anything.  But of course because of the principle of reflection, we cannot help feeling ourselves in the scarecrow, and in fact, feeling all of Nature at autumn in the scarecrow.  It is said that a single falling leaf is all of autumn, and the same may be said of a scarecrow, which we feel in this verse of Chōi:

The autumn wind
Goes right through its bones —
The scarecrow.

The scarecrow shows us the transience and impermanence inherent in Nature, inherent in all things.

Shōha gives us the harmony of two similar things in this verse:

The evening sun;
The shadow of the scarecrow
Reaches the road.

The scarecrow is old as the day is old, and the sun declines as the year declines into silence and darkness.

The scarecrow is the ultimate of humility and selflessness.  It is no respecter of persons.  It removes its hat before no one, and it is unmoved alike by beauty and ugliness, as Issa points out:

A full moon;
It stands there indifferent —
The scarecrow.

Of course there is a bit of animism in that, the tendency of people to see “life” in things that are not alive in the usual sense.  The birds of autumn, however, are not fooled, as Sazanami shows us:

From scarecrow
To scarecrow they fly —
The sparrows.

Otsuyū writes

Autumn deepens;
The scarecrow is clothed
In fallen leaves.

It reminds us of the words of Jesus in the New Testament in that most poetic of translations, the “King James” version:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

The scarecrow, however, is above such sermons, unimpressed by status and position and wealth, unmoved by glory or shame, just a manifestation of elements that come together temporarily to make a form, and then disperse again into nothingness.




From time to time I like to remind people why I use historically-accurate terminology here, instead of the inaccurate, anachronistic, and very misleading and confusing term “haiku.”  Bashō called what he wrote hokku, as a part of his practice of haikai; that was true whether the verses appeared independently or in linked verse or in travel journals.  The same is true of all writers of the verse form in the centuries prior to the 20th.  And of course those who write hokku rather than modern haiku today continue to use the same term  — hokku — as was used in past centuries.

Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify, yet the modern haiku establishment persists in trying to obscure it.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that among scholars is well known to be a mistake .  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology.  Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from its spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences of which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, hokku could appear either as independent verses or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the  hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines.  In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of not always well-suppressed anger among writers of modern haiku.  Haiku forums on the Internet are notorious for bickering and viciousness.  There are many reasons for this.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde, revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread new haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use.  Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte).



I like to repeat this posting each year at this time:

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.  The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.”

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite.  And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year.  The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August.  Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave.  And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of  hokku.  We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event.  And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in a hokku.  In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a hokku I wrote:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

Read it, see it, feel it.  Can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood?  Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku.  It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, everything changes, nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing.  It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma Mère — My Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.”

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.”

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes.  Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins.  Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.”

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows.  It is not necessary to tell that to the children.”

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.



In Japan, Issa’s hokku have always been remarkably popular.  And they are popular in the West as well — at least the better known verses, among which one finds this:

The brushwood gate;
Instead of a lock,
A snail.

But of course that is not the popular translation, which is, following Blyth,

A brushwood gate;
For a lock,
This snail.

There is a subtle distinction between the two, and for me it makes the difference between an acceptable verse and one that is just “too cute for words.”  It is the difference between “acting as” and “instead of.”

To say,

For a lock,
This snail.

is to put the verse into the childish mind — which we do indeed often find in Issa — but in an adult it comes off as mawkish.  This is all the more dangerous in hokku because in the West, people eat “mawkish” with a spoon.  They cannot get enough of it, and as I discovered long ago, one of the worst failings of some beginning students of hokku is that they go for the “cute” and sentimental like flies to dead flesh, particularly female writers, but males too are not immune.

The difference can be seen in the two translations of this verse.  We can put that difference into prose like this, so that it may better be understood:

In the first translation, the writer shows us a brushwood gate — a gate made of roughly cut sticks, the bark left on.  And he tells us that there is no lock on the gate, and that where one would expect to find one, there is only — at the moment — a snail.  A snail instead of a lock.

In the second translation, the writer shows us a brushwood gate, and says that he has a snail acting as a lock; the snail takes the place of and serves the function of a lock.  That, of course, is just childish fancy; a snail cannot serve the purpose of a lock.  It is in this incongruity that we find the “cuteness” of the verse.  It reminds one of children playing “bank” with leaves as money.  But what is cute in children is just sentimentality in an adult’s hokku.

Now in his commentary on this verse, Blyth remarks that “The snail is used both as an absurd-looking creature and to point to the ridiculousness of all locks and bolts and gates and doors.”

It is a brave effort, but I do not quite buy it.  To me, as good hokku,  the verse is simply expressing the writer’s poverty — that he really has nothing worth stealing, so a snail where one would expect a lock really does not much matter.  If one understands the verse that way, it loses some of its sentimentality, but it is hard to read it that way in the second translation, which tends instead to fall into mere sentimentality.

That is why I prefer the first translation, which prevents us from confusing lock and snail, and tells us quite plainly that there is no lock on the gate — just a snail where a lock would ordinarily be.  “Instead of” rather than “acting as.”

Now as to what Issa actually intended, we can only say that either translation is possible.  I suspect, however, that Issa intended the more mawkish reading, knowing Issa’s way of thinking and reacting, which is why I seldom use his verses as models, and when I do, it is only those free of such personal peculiarities.



It is always disappointing to see how the creators of modern haiku trivialize, dismiss, or ignore the writings of the very person from whom they could have learned the most, were they not so self-willed and self-absorbed — R. H. Blyth.

Blyth talks of how “things” are of critical importance, telling the reader that “It is in virtue of its lack of something that a thing has value,” and he backs this up with a quote from the Zenrinkushu — the forest of Zen sayings:

The tree manifests the bodily power of the wind;
The wave exhibits the spiritual nature of the moon

Blyth tells us in response, “If the tree were strong enough it would manifest nothing.  If the wave were rigid, the moon’s nature could not be expressed in it.”

Blyth is telling us here not just the significance of things, but also the requirements for writing about them — for writing hokku.  It is just the opposite of the modern haiku attitude.  One must be empty of “self nature.”

To explain further, Blyth quotes the German “mystic” Meister Eckhart:

Sollt ihr also ein Sohn sein, so müsst ihr ablegen and von euch scheiden alles, was eine Besonderheit an euch ausmacht.

If you would become a son, then you must put aside and separate from all that makes an individuality of you.”

In other words, Blyth is saying that the writer of hokku must “empty himself” of the desire to “express himself,” to “become a poet,” to “make a name for himself,” and it is only because of that emptiness — like the emptiness of a mirror undimmed by dust — that the writer can truly experience and express the “things” that are the primary matter of hokku.

This ability to discard self-will and the urge to be noticed is something the modern haiku community as a whole has never been willing to do nor even willing to consider as desirable or beneficial.

Blyth tells us, “In relation to every circumstance, we are to be like the servants at the Feast of Cana:  Whatever he saith unto you, do it.”

That is virtually an impossibility for the greater portion of writers of modern haiku, because they are too busy trying to be clever or witty or aesthetic or “known” — trying to be “poets” writing “poetry.”  But Blyth tells us to give all that up.  Simply empty yourself, become a servant to Nature, and “Whatever he saith unto you, do it.”

The “he” here is not this or that teacher, but rather Nature.  A writer of hokku does not say, “Now I am going to write a verse about my reaction to the war” or “I am going to compose a few lines on how I feel about my boyfriend/girlfriend leaving me.”  Instead, a writer of hokku becomes empty of self-will and self-nature, open to the promptings of Nature expressed in thing-events, just as Blyth has said:

The tree manifests the bodily power of the wind;
The wave exhibits the spiritual nature of the moon.

Thus the writer of hokku manifests flowers blooming in spring, a hawk circling high in the blue sky of summer, a golden yellow leaf falling in autumn, the winter wind blowing in through cracks in the wall.  He or she does this to the extent that he or she is empty of self-will, empty of self-nature, empty of what Eckhart called Besonderheit — individuality — what we in hokku call the “self.”

Blyth does not beat around the bush.  He tells us quite plainly, “A poet sees things as they are in proportion as he is selfless.”

But that is precisely contrary to the attitude of modern haiku, which, like much of modern poetry, wants not to “put aside” the self, but rather to express it and make it more obvious.  That is exactly why modern haiku denigrates Blyth even while generally misunderstanding him.  Note that Blyth does not say a self-willed poet does not “see” things, but that he “does not see things as they are.”  That is because he — or she — is too busy covering them over with “thinking,” with personal desires and wishes and intellectual abstractions and whittering commentary — the very kinds of things that constitute what most people think of as “poetry.”

The way of a hokku writer, however, is precisely that which Blyth describes:

The flowers say ‘Bloom!’ and we bloom in them.  The wind blows and we sway in the leaves.”

In our school of hokku we express the same by saying that the writer must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  The mind of the writer should be like a quiet pond in which the moon may be reflected.  This “mirror-mind” of the writer of hokku can exist only when one puts aside self-will and self-absorption. One must give up the obsession with the products of the “thinking” mind, and it is by doing so that one allows things to have their own inherent value — not as something added to them by the “poet,” as one might paint roses red — but as they are in themselves when the mind of the writer is emptied and still.



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.”



Is hokku difficult?  The simple answer is no.

The only difficulty in hokku comes from what we add to it from our own minds.  Really, a hokku is just a meaningful experience of the senses expressed in the context of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

One can, of course, find old Japanese hokku that were difficult, because old hokku had not lost its literary connections.  So often an old hokku cannot be fully understood without knowing that it used a phrase from this or that Chinese poem, or an allusion to an historical or literary event.  I have no interest in such hokku, because they are not hokku at its best.  They are just another form of hokku as a game.  To some it was a word game, to others a literary game —
“Guess the puzzle.”

What was worthwhile in old hokku was its expression of an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.  And there is nothing difficult about that beyond the willingness to give up our “thinking” and attachment to the notion of “self” for a while, and to just go with actual experience.

Yes, one has to learn how to punctuate, one has to learn that a hokku has a “cut” between the shorter and longer parts, one has to learn how to create internal harmony in a hokku, but really these are easy things.  It is Nature that does all the work — Nature that creates an experience we feel to be significant.

Some people like to give the impression that hokku is difficult and mysterious, but it is not that at all.  The best hokku are straightforward and direct, like this summer verse by Taigi:

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

That could have been written about most any place in America on a hot day.

Our modern hokku has none of the excessive characteristics that did sometimes make old hokku difficult, because modern hokku takes what was best in old hokku and sets that as the standard.  We can cheerfully forget all the rest and leave it to scholars and academics, because it is just the chaff of the history of hokku.



Issa wrote:

The one-foot waterfall
Also makes sounds;
The evening cool.

This is Issa’s version of “The morning glory that lives but a day differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.”  A one-foot waterfall, like a greater waterfall, also has the pleasant, soothing and cooling “sound of water.”

Like many of Issa’s hokku, this example is subjective; it adds “thinking,” seen in the word “also.”


Onitsura wrote this summer hokku:

The bellies of trout seen
In the shallows.

This is a “standard” hokku, meaning it has setting, subject, and action.  The setting is the evening; the subject is the bellies of the trout; the action is “seen in the shallows.”  Of course the real action is the movement of the trout that shows their light underside.

This is a very “Yin” verse.  The evening is yin, the shallows are yin, the light bellies of the trout are a yin “color.”  The weaker Yang element is in the remaining light of day and in the movement of the fish.



You will recall that very old hokku often used two things joined by a third.  Yayu wrote an interesting hokku that uses two things also, but provides the third that unites them in an interesting way:

The windbell is silent;
The heat
Of the clock.

It is a very hot summer day without a breath of wind.  The windbell hangs unmoving and silent.  The only sound in the heavy heat is the steady, regular, dry, metallic tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock of the clock (obviously pre-digital days).  We feel the persistence of the summer heat in the ceaseless ticking that marks off the seconds and minutes and hours of the hot, oppressive day with the same weariness we feel in William Blake’s lines,

Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun….

In Yayu’s hokku, the third element that joins and harmonizes the silence of the windbell and the steady ticking of the clock is of course the heat!



The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it —
The clear water.


While working stone, the metal chisel of the stonemason becomes too hot to hold — from the heat of the day and from the friction of repeated blows — so he holds it in the clear, cool water to take away the heat.

This is a hokku of harmony of opposites — the heat of the summer day (this is a summer hokku) and the heat of the chisel from working the stone are placed against the coolness of the water — Yang (heat) against Yin (coolness and water) — and in this case, Yin overcomes Yang, which makes for a very refreshing verse.



Good hokku generally have strong sensation.  By sensation we mean an experience of the senses — seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing.

Those of you with an inquisitive bent of mind may think, “Well, if hokku is all about sensation, why not just present a sensation and be done with it?  Why not just say something like “heat” or “coolness” or “sticking my hand in icewater,” and have that as the entire verse?

The answer, of course, is that it does not make much of a verse.  The reason is that sensation without context has little significance for us.  There must be something that sets off the sensation, that acts as a foil.  By “as a foil” I am using the old meaning of the word, in which the “shine” or color of a gemstone was enhanced by backing it with metal foil.  A similar thing happens when we add context in hokku.

For example, here is a sensory experience of seeing:

A huge ant walks across the floor.

And the natural response would be, “OK, so what?”  That is because the ant crossing the floor has no context.  But when we add a meaningful context, then something interesting happens:

A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
The heat!

By Shirō’s just adding the context of the sensation of heat, the huge ant walking across the floor suddenly becomes meaningful, significant.  We cannot really say what its significance is, we just feel it to be significant.  One clue is that the “hugeness” of the ant is like the “hugeness” of the heat — so in a way this is a hokku of perceived harmony of similar things.  But I mention that only to help those who are new to hokku.  Really it is best just to feel the unspoken connection, and that leaves us with the feeling of a significance that cannot be put into words.

Hokku are not intended to be “pretty,” just interesting and significant, so we come across some earthy ones such as:

In the horse market,
How their urine stinks!

Well, that has sensation, but it does not have enough context to “set it off.”  That missing context was added by Masafusa as:

In the horse market,
How their urine stinks!
The heat!

By simply adding the heat, the awful smell is “set off” and intensified, and when that happens, the sense of awful heat is also intensified.  So we see here again a hokku of harmony of similarity, in this case of “strong” things — the strong stink of the urine, the strong heat of the very hot, still summer day.

Now why am I telling you these things?  For one reason only — to help you to understand the aesthetics and techniques of the hokku, so that you may write new hokku and keep the old tradition alive.



In my last posting, I discussed the distinction between subjective and objective hokku.  We can think of it this way:

An objective hokku is a thing-event.

A subjective hokku is generally a thing-event plus the “thinking” of the writer.

Shiki wrote:

Through the window of the stone lantern —
The sea.

There is just the coolness, the stone lantern, the sea.

However at another time Shiki wrote:

The defeat of the Heike
In the sound of the waves.

The Heike were an ancient clan defeated in a naval battle.  So what we see here is a bit of objectivity — “coolness” and “the sound of the waves” — but added to and overwhelming that is the subjectivity of Shiki’s historical allusion, his “coloring of the imagination” added when he “hears” the defeat of the Heike in the sound of the waves.  But what he hears comes not from the waves, but from his own imagination.  What he really hears is just the sound of waves.  But he did not let that be enough.  He has added “thinking” to the objective elements, and has made the verse subjective.

Now why is this distinction important, given that historically there were virtually always both subjective and objective hokku?  It is important because in the kind of hokku I teach, we prefer hokku without “thinking” because they give us the pure thing-event, with nothing added.

Subjective hokku are “poetical,” meaning “fancifully depicted or embellished.”  When Shiki adds the defeat of the Heike to the plain sound of the waves, he is adding his own imagination, his own fancy, and is embellishing the sound of the waves by adding that “coloring of the imagination” to them.

Subjective hokku are often very popular in the West, because as I wrote earlier, Western poetry is traditionally highly subjective.  In fact the degree to which Western poetry was and is subjective is rather astonishing when one begins to look for objectivity in traditional poetry.

We can say that in subjective verse, the writer has a “poetic” intent.  He cannot just give us the thing-event itself and let it be.  He has to add his own thoughts, his own view, his own interpretation.  Very rarely is Nature just allowed to be Nature, as Onitsura allows it to be in this objective hokku:

A cool wind;
The sky is filled
With the sound of pines.

In that verse there is no attempt to be “poetical,” no addition of the thinking of the writer.  There is only the cool wind, only the sound of the pines filling the sky.

Of course our preference for objectivity in hokku can be traced to the spiritual roots of hokku.  In the Bahiya Sutta we read,

“In the seen, there should be only the seen.  In the heard, there should be only the heard.”

So there is a very close connection between the preference for objective hokku here and the practice of a meditative, contemplative life.



We earlier saw that there are basically two different kinds of hokku — subjective hokku and objective hokku.  Subjective hokku are those in which the writer adds his own view or interpretation, his “thinking.”  Objective hokku are those that simply present an experience and let the reader experience it too.

I teach objective hokku, because to me, it is the “purest” kind, very appropriate for a contemplative lifestyle.  Just as we should not add “thinking” to our meditation, we also do not add it to our hokku.

It is not difficult to recognize the other kind, subjective hokku, however.  We need look no farther than Bashō to find numerous examples, some very well known:

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

“Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the “thinking” addition.

Ill on a journey;
Dreams run about
The withered fields.

“Dreams run about the withered fields” is the added “thinking”

Art’s beginning —
The rice planting songs
Of the interior.

“Art’s beginning” is the added “thinking.”

Did it cry itself
Utterly away?
A cicada shell.

“Did it cry itself utterly away?” is the added “thinking.”

But we also find in Bashō some quite good examples of objective hokku — those without added “thinking”:

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

On a withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Generally it is easy to recognize subjective hokku — hokku with “thinking” added.  But some are a bit tricky, for example, Chiyo-ni wrote:

The well bucket
Taken by the morning glory;
Borrowing water.

At first this would seem to be an objective verse, because Chiyo-ni is just stating “facts.”  But then we realize that the point of the verse is that she does not want to tear the morning glory vine away from the well bucket, and so she goes to borrow water from a neighbor.  That introduces a subjective element, and puts the writer of the verse front and center.  In hokku, however, we prefer that the writer get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  We do not want to know about Chiyo-ni’s delicate aesthetic sensibilities; we just want a sensory experience.

By contrast, here is a pleasantly objective verse by Chiyo-ni:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

Rankō has an objective hokku, though it has a longer time span:

Withered reeds —
Day after day breaking off,
Floating away.

And of course in Issa we have the very obvious “thinking” of:

This dewdrop world —
A dewdrop world it is,
And yet….

In Onitsura ‘s hokku we find objective examples such as:

The leaping trout,
Clouds pass by.

But sometimes he is subjective, as in:

I have not yet
Taken off the Floating World;
The change of clothes.

The “floating world” is the “worldly” life.  “The change of clothes” signifies that time when one changes from cold-weather clothing to warm-weather clothing.  It is not difficult to see that “I have not yet taken off the Floating World” is Onitsura’s “thinking” addition, his added subjectivity.

In both reading and writing hokku, we should be increasingly able to recognize subjectivity, and to distinguish it from objectivity.  “Subjective” hokku are those people are likely to think of as more “poetic,” because people in the West are accustomed to subjective thinking in poetry.  But in hokku we look for sensory experience, and that requires greater aesthetic awareness to appreciate.  It demands more of reader and writer, because it offers us those experiences in which we perceive an unspoken significance, even though all we have is tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing — without added “thinking.”



In hokku, as I have said many times, we do not use metaphor (saying one thing is another) or simile (saying one thing is like another).  There is a specific reason for that.  It is that in hokku, metaphor and simile draw the mind in two different directions, and two separate images compete for the reader’s attention.  This is contrary to the very intense, aware focus that hokku as taught here requires.

That does not mean, of course, that metaphor and simile are inappropriate for other kinds of writing and other occasions.  Sometimes they can be quite effective, and indeed at times may be the best way of expressing something.

There is an old and rather odd book written by a woman named Grace Duffie Boylan.  It came to be in 1918 and was published in 1919, and it purports to be the after-death communications of her son, killed in action in Europe — in Flanders — in the First World War — that shadow time of immense grief and suffering.  It is titled Thy Son Liveth.

I don’t intend to take up the issue here of how authentic the communications in the book may or may not be, because what I really want to talk about now is an exquisite use of simile in the text — in something she says was told her by her son from the afterlife.  You will find it on page 22:

Mother, the soul leaves the body as a boy jumps out of the school door.  That is, suddenly, and with joy.

The poetry of those lines, for me,  is the pinnacle of the entire book.

I must add, though, that there is an amusing little verse on another page, 38, when her son asks,

Do you recall how we laughed over that epitaph on a little white gravestone in New England:

‘Since so quickly I was done for,
I wonder what I was begun for?'”

Reading the book, whatever one may think of its veracity, is very poignant for those who, like me, can remember the days when a very few aged, grey soldiers from that terrible First World War still marched in every Fourth of July parade, and when one might encounter on the street a poor old man still “shell-shocked” from that horrendous conflict — and of course each year those selling the little, paper poppies to pin on one’s lapel or dress – the poppies that had become the symbol of that frightful war and its terrible harvest of the lives of youth.

There was a time when almost everyone in America recognized this poem by John McCrae:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

The book Thy Son Liveth may be found online at:


You may be interested to know that the concept of Boylan’s book was reworked into an updated story for a movie a few years ago.  While some may feel it excessively sentimental, others will find it both moving and inspiring — but in any case it is worth watching just to see Vanessa Redgrave’s performance and to hear that remarkable use of simile from the book.  The film — available on DVD now — is called A Rumor of Angels.



In the past I have talked about the four kinds of verse, which can further be reduced to two kinds:

1.  The “facts” of the verse viewed subjectively.

2.  The “facts” of the verse viewed objectively.

An important stage in the development of one’s understanding of hokku is the realization that these two categories apply to old hokku just as they do to other kinds of verse.  So we have “subjective” hokku and we have “objective” hokku.

Because the kind of hokku I teach and prefer is “objective” hokku, we need to know and recognize the difference.  We can find both kinds even within the verses of a single writer, for example in the hokku of Bashō:

There is the well-known verse:

The sea has darkened;
Cries of the wild ducks
Are faintly white.

That is, however, a hokku tainted with subjectivity.  Why?  Because we know that the cries of the ducks are sounds, and sounds cannot be “faintly white.”  There is an exception for the very, very tiny number of people who experience synesthesia, who are able to “see” colors — but we have no evidence that Bashō or any of his readers had that ability.  We must say, then, that Bashō has phrased the hokku in this way to make it obviously “poetic,” that is, to add his fantasy to it instead of just letting it be what it is.

Bashō also wrote:

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the tree shade.

Bashō saw an historically-significant flute at Suma Temple, and he tells us he heard the sound of that unblown flute.  Well, no, he did not.  What he heard at best was a sound he imagined in his mind, leaving aside the issue of how this verse borrows from an old waka verse.  What Bashō has done is to take the silent flute and to romanticize it, to add from his own fantasy to consciously make it more “poetic.”

And of course Bashō also wrote:

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

That, by contrast, is an objective verse, without the added fantasy of the writer.  Now some might say, “Well, Bashō did not really see this exact event, so he did use fantasy,” and they would be right.  But the distinction we want to make here is between those verses that use obvious additions from the imagination for “poetic” effect in contrast to those verses that are — or in the case of this last verse, that seem — to be entirely without the addition of fantasy from the imagination of the writer.  In other words there is nothing “untrue” about the experience of seeing a frog jump into an old pond and hearing the watery “plop!”  But there is something untrue in saying that the cries of wild ducks are “faintly white,” or that one hears an “unblown flute.”  We know right away that neither of these things is “true” to reality, and that is the distinction we make in hokku between subjective, “”untrue” hokku supplemented from fantasy to make them seem more poetic, and objective, “true” hokku that do not say anything out of keeping with the way things are in reality.

Now note this:  The truth of hokku does not mean a verse happened exactly the way the writer gives it.  But the writer must not put anything in it that could not have been experienced in just the way the hokku presents it.  In other words, Bashō may have seen a frog jump into water at some time, and he may have tried to come up with a fitting first line, trying different settings, such as mentioning a kind of flowering shrub.  But in any case, he finally decided on “The old pond” as the appropriate setting.  And the verse has a “true” effect when read.

Remember that in writing hokku, we use the principle of the old Chinese painters — that one went out into nature, looking at mountains and rivers, trees and birds, blossoms and stones, studying their character.  And then one went home and composed an ink painting using the character of the elements one had seen.  The painter likely did not see precisely the landscape in the final painting.  But because he had studied the nature of these things, back in his studio he could combine them into paintings that have the effect of being “true.”

It is the same with hokku.  We write from actual experience, but a particular hokku may combine experiences from more than one occasion, in order to express the character of a season.  But what we cannot do in the kind of hokku I teach is to add fantasies from our imagination that make a hokku obviously “untrue.”  For example, if I write a spring verse about apple blossoms, and throw in that I hear the whistling of Johnny Appleseed as I view them, then obviously I am adding fantasy, and am being “untrue” in hokku.

This matter of adding fantasy from the imagination to a verse, throwing over it what Wordsworth called the “coloring of the imagination,” is very important in understanding the aesthetics behind our kind of hokku — objective hokku — which carefully avoids adding such coloring of the imagination.

Why?  Because our verse is contemplative hokku.  We want to be faithful to Nature and to its character, so we cannot simply add fantasies to events to make them seem more romantic, more “poetic.”  In our kind of hokku the poetry is not on the page, it is in the sensory experience of the verse — touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing.  When one has that, one needs nothing more.

I hope readers will think carefully about this, and will look again at old hokku by different authors to see which are “true” hokku, and which are “untrue.”



It is important to distinguish the essentials from the nonessentials in learning hokku.  Many people easily get sidetracked, often never finding their way back.

There are, of course, ways to improve one’s conscious understanding of hokku.  But it is the immediate effect of a verse that is what first caused that attraction — the effect of pure sensing — drops of rain falling on a pool, leaves drooping in heat, the odd, unmistakeable scent of a dandelion flower — these things are really the essence of hokku.

English: Dandelion flower (Taraxacum officinal...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people of intellectual bent get drawn off into detailed study of old Japanese hokku — of allusions in Japanese or Chinese, of the intricacies of linking verses in the old practice, of the cultural significance of this or that object.  But it is all just distraction.  That is not what drew us to hokku, and the more we go off into intellection rather than sensing — experiencing — the more we will lose hokku.

The other side-route that draws off many people from hokku is the urge to change it — the very mistaken notion that because hokku is “old,” it must be altered to fit the times, to “express the individual.”  First they alter this, then they change that, and quickly hokku disappears — vanishes.  They have lost it because of their self-will, their urge to manipulate, the same urge that has done so much damage in the world.

Very, very few are those who just let hokku be — who accept it as it is in English, without trying to “Japanify” it, without trying to modernize it or intellectualize it or make it a vehicle of “self-” expression.

I hope at least some readers have noticed that I place no emphasis at all on esoteric Japanese terms in hokku.  I just talk of hokku in plain English.  When I am talking about indicating season, I don’t use a foreign term; when I am talking about the “cut” that separates the two parts of a hokku, I don’t use a foreign term.  In fact the only term I really retain with any frequency is the word “hokku” itself, and that only because it is not only a distinctive name, but it is the old name for the kind of verse we write, and there seems no good reason to change that.  And I use the Chinese terms Yin and Yang frequently — not because I want to sound exotic in any way, but just because we do not have native terms in English that cover all that those two terms cover — so I borrow them into English and make them English words because they are so useful.

Readers here will also note (I hope) that to explain hokku, I do not have to keep reaching into the distant Japanese past.  There is no need at all for that.  All we need is here, now, where we are, in this present moment — not in some foreign past.

I can give you all the essentials of writing hokku:  How and where to cut a line, how to punctuate and capitalize, all the useful techniques such as internal reflection and harmony of difference, and harmony of similarity, of repeated subject, and all the rest.  But it is all quite useless if the reader does not begin to live a life of hokku — a life allowing space for simply experiencing — simply being — without intellection — what we call “thinking” in hokku — and a life without the urge to remold hokku into some other form to fit this or that fad or whim.

I deliberately avoid trying to make hokku seem “academic,” which in my view is death to hokku; and I try to avoid making it seem in any way “Japanese,” which it should only be when written by Japanese.  When written by an American it should be thoroughly American — or thoroughly Welsh when written by a resident of Wales, or quite Icelandic when written by an Icelander, and so on through the whole list of countries of the world.

If ever you find yourself getting distracted from “plain” hokku by intellectualism or the urge to change, just pause and remember what drew you to hokku in the beginning — Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons, manifesting through sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.  All the rest is simply distraction from that pure essence.



Readers will long ago have noticed that I use old hokku — including verses just beyond what is technically the old “hokku” period — quite often.  My purpose in doing so is not just to provide a collection of old verse, but rather to show through them how new verses may be written in English — new hokku.

Shiki wrote a verse about a shower and rain beating on the heads of carp.  There are several ways we can present it in English — and several ways we can write other hokku using the same patterns in English.

We could say:

A sudden shower;
Rain beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We could also write it using the “repeated subject” method, which works very well in English.  You will recall that the subject of the verse is named once, but also presented a second time using a pronoun — “he,” “she,” or “it.”  Here’s how it works with Shiki’s verse:

A sudden shower —
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

Either method will work, though the second, “repeated subject” method avoids the repetition of a noun (shower – rain) in the first example, which is often useful.

This verse, though late, is nonetheless “internally” in all respects a hokku, and a rather good one.  This kind of objectivity is what we favor in hokku — no added thinking, no added commentary, not even a writer anywhere in sight.  There is only the unexpected, sudden summer shower, and the rain beating on the heads of the carp risen to the surface of the water.

In spite of being a summer verse, it is a very cooling, yin, watery verse.

Kikaku, one of Bashō’s students, wrote a verse using the same setting much earlier:

A sudden shower;
A solitary woman
Looks outside.

Blyth takes a slight bit of freedom with it, making it even more effective:

A summer shower;
A woman sits alone,
Gazing outside.

That gives us a somewhat different effect than the first, and shows us how small changes in a verse can alter the effect.



A pleasant and simple summer hokku by Kitō:

Little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water.

We see the tiny fish in the clear, sunlit water, swimming against the current, which nonetheless is so strong that, still facing upstream, they are carried  a bit backwards.

This is one of those hokku that is just a kind of rejoicing in the experience of seeing.  We feel the small strength and persistence of the little fish against the greater strength of the clear water.  There is the energy of the fish going in one direction, the energy of the water going in the other.

This is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.

The setting is “the clear water.”
The subject is “little fish.”
The action is “are carried backwards.”



Issa wrote this summer hokku:

The big cat —
Flopped down on the fan

It is rather typical Issa, with his connection to animals and his kind of humor.

The point of the verse is that it is summer, which means heat.  Looking for his fan, Issa sees that a big, lazy, sleepy cat has flopped himself down right atop it, and is drowsing away.

So to understand the verse, we have to feel the heat; we have to feel the little frustration yet humor in seeing the cat lying atop the fan; and we have to feel the heaviness of the heat in the bigness of the cat.  The heat of summer has manifested itself in the bigness of the cat that is “keeping” the coolness of the fan.  That is perhaps saying too much, because we are just supposed to feel those connections, but when one is learning, these things occasionally have to be spelled out so that the beginner may know what to look for in hokku, and how they work.

This odd, unspoken connection between things is very common in hokku.  It helps bring us back out of our thoughts to the real world, in which everything and everyone is connected.  We see heat and summer in a big cat, but also in the potential coolness of the fan that we have to go to some bother to retrieve from the cat who has taken it over.  But we must not think the cat is a metaphor or a symbol.  The cat is a cat; the heat is the heat.  And yet the heat manifests in the big cat, the big cat manifests in the heat.  That is how things are “felt” in hokku.

You always read here that hokku should be something seen in a new way.  In Issa’s verse, the newness is in the connection between the summer heat, the big cat, the fan, and of course Issa himself, who is never mentioned at all in the verse.

When we read the hokku, there is no Issa; we become the experiencer.  So we cannot say the hokku is “about” Issa.  In hokku there should be no “fixed” writer visible.  That allows the reader to become the one to whom the hokku is happening.  And each time we read it, it happens anew.  But in hokku we must take one more step and say there is no experiencer.  There is just the experience.   That is why we say in hokku that the writer must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.



As readers know, I often use the ancient concept of the two opposite yet harmoniously-working elements of the universe, Yin and Yang, in explaining hokku.  Jia Dao wrote:

Asking the young boy beneath the pine,
He says, “Master is off gathering herbs,
Just someplace 
in these mountains —
The clouds are deep — I don’t know where.”

Photo by kind permission of Keith Liang (http://www.keithliang.com)

Aren’t these Chinese mountains amazing?  Who would have guessed that such mountains exist anywhere this side of Pandora?  Looking at them, we see the high (Yang) mountains rising into the swirling mist and clouds (Yin).

I was fortunate recently to find a photograph locally by Keith Liang.  I have it up above my desk as I write this.  A friend of mine who does Chinese brush painting stopped by and noticed it immediately.  She thought at first it was a painting, because it expresses the spirit found in Chinese landscape painting so well.  And she was very taken with its interaction of dark spaces and “blank” spaces, the interaction of mountains and clouds.  No doubt that is what drew me to it when I first saw it.

In China, a landscape is called a “mountains-water.”  We certainly see both in this photo.

But I want to talk a little about Chinese poetry, which influenced hokku, particularly through the anthology known as the Three Hundred Tang Poems.  “Tang” here means the Tang Dynasty.  One of the poets in that collection is Jia Dao, who wrote the verse above.

In the original, it is a “five-character” poem, meaning that each of its four lines is composed of five characters.  These characters function very similarly to our “essential words” in composing hokku, except that in hokku we add the necessaries of normal English to finish.  In literary Chinese, the words remain as they are.

If we look, for example, at the first two lines and translate them literally,  they look something like:

Pine under ask child boy
Say master gather medicine go

Those of you who have read Chinese poetry in translation can see from this why different translations of the same verse are often so unlike one another.  It is because the very basic elements of literary Chinese make many different ways of translating into English possible.

There is nothing to prevent us from writing our own Nature-based, “Chinese” style verse today, and when we do so, the “essential words” construction of the Chinese poem can be a great help.

I have already said that Jia Dao’s poem is a five-character poem (we can think of it as using five “essential words,” those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar in English).  There are also seven-character poems, with seven to a line instead of five.  But for practice here, we will try one like that of Jia Dao, in four lines and with five essential words.  This will give you a rough idea how to do it.  Don’t overthink the essential words — just think of them as nouns, verbs, and prepositions essential to meaning.  Don’t worry about grammar, don’t bother too much initially about plural or singular.  Then you might get something like:

This year summer late come
Day day cool rain fall
Clouds cover west hill top
Mist swirl on long river

Now we can clean that up to make the verse:

This year summer comes late;
Day after day the cool rains fall;
Clouds hide the west hill summit;
Mist swirls above the long river.

We can leave it at that, or if we like, we can take it one further step from the original, as do many translators of Chinese verse, to put it into more flowing English.

Summer is late in coming this year;
Day after day the cool rains fall.
The western peaks are veiled in clouds;
Mist swirls above the long river.

Even from our little sample here, we can see why we often find short poems written on Chinese landscape paintings.  It is because the images and the words go very well together.

I hope that readers here will experiment with writing some “five-character” Chinese poems in English.  It is just as easy as I have demonstrated.  Don’t worry about making your poems great literature.  Just use them to express Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, just as in hokku.

This is a very easy and pleasant way to write Nature poetry with a spirit very much like that of hokku, only with more “space,” which is not surprising, because one characteristic of Chinese poetry in comparison to the hokku is that the former usually has a much greater sense of space and distance, while hokku tends to focus on the small and near-by.

Another difference is that hokku works in “threes,” such as the three lines of our English-language hokku, while Chinese verse works in couplets — pairs of two lines.  Jia Dao’s verse, then, is a quatrain (four-lined poem) consisting of two couplets (pairs of two lines).

We can, if we wish, write five-character poems longer than four lines, and we can also increase the number of “essential words” per line to seven, to approximate a Chinese “seven-character” poem.  However we do it, writing Chinese-style poetry gives us a wonderful option for writing about those experiences of Nature that simply do not fit well into the three lines of a hokku.  And we can write them in the same spirit of poverty, simplicity, and transience, exhibiting the changes of Nature through the interaction of Yin and Yang as the seasons come and go.

If you found this posting interesting, you may also wish to read the following, with additional information on how to write “Chinese” poetry in English:



In our practice of hokku, we must beware of using the entire body of existing old hokku and its related literature as a fundamentalist uses the Bible.  By this I mean that we should not say, for example, “Jōsō did this in that particular hokku, therefore we should do it in modern hokku” or “Bashō used what looks like metaphor in this verse, therefore we should use metaphor in writing hokku today.”  That is a very distorted way of understanding our practice of hokku.

Instead, we begin with what we want to achieve in hokku:  We want to write verses that emphasize sensory experience — experiences of seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, and smelling — having as our subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, and that set in the context of the changing seasons.

Further, we want to write verse exhibiting poverty, simplicity, and transience — verses that show us not only freshness and youth but also time and age.

And we also want “selfless” verses, a de-emphasis on the ego, treating the person — even the person of the writer — with the same objectivity with which we would write of a tree on a rocky hillside or a bird in the forest.  We want our verse to have an inexpressible significance that is felt through what it does present, but never overtly stated — because such significance is impossible to put into words.

In the practical matter of putting the words on the page, we already have the hokku form, which works superbly well, with punctuation used to guide the reader smoothly and to provide fine shades of pause and emphasis.

We want our hokku, further, to be free of intellection and abstraction, free of added commentary and explanation, free of unnecessary “poetic” frills and ornamentation.

If all of this is how we want to write hokku (and as taught on this site, it is), then we really need waste no time on the academic side of it all.  We need not learn Japanese; we need not learn Japanese history; we need not learn Japanese culture.  Above all, we need not search through old hokku literature, as the fundamentalist searches the scriptures, to see just what Bashō said about this or that, or whether this or that author wrote hokku from the imagination rather than from reality.  In fact we need no reference to old hokku at all beyond the simple fact that I like to use the best of old hokku, translated into English, as models when teaching how to write good hokku in English.

I do not and have never pretended that hokku as I teach it incorporates absolutely everything ever employed in the old Japanese literary practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse, of which the hokku was the first and starting verse.  Instead I teach what in my view is the distilled essence, the best, aesthetically, of the old hokku, as it applies to a spiritual and contemplative lifestyle.  Keep in mind that even in speaking of Bashō, only a small percentage of his verses are really worthwhile for us today.

In the past I have sometimes, perhaps, spent too much time on historical examination of the old practice of haikai, something that is entirely unnecessary for what I teach.  Such things are a matter for scholars and may be of interest to some, but they really need play no part in the living practice of hokku today, and in fact for the most part we are better off when just working on our practice of hokku, rather than dispersing our energies in historical and literary research.

All of this, you can probably tell, is leading up to something.  That something is simply a shift in approach on this blog.  From this point onward, I want to emphasize the practical approach to hokku, leaving most of the linguistic and historical aspects for those who want to spend the time on them.  Given the general goals in writing hokku mentioned earlier, there is really no reason at all for dwelling here on the history of hokku or all the minutiae of hokku as practiced more than a hundred years ago when it was part of the wider practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse.

That change in emphasis here means that I hope to be spending more time on the aesthetics of hokku specifically as we practice it here, and though I will no doubt continue to use old examples as models and bits of old literature to illustrate aesthetics, I really want to get away completely from anything that looks even remotely like the “proof-texting” attitude toward hokku.

As I said in a previous recent posting, we need not look to any aspect of old haikai practice to validate our practice of hokku today.  Our practice has its own body of aesthetics and principles and techniques, the essence of the best, as I have said, of the old hokku.  So from now on I would like to focus on that.

In practical terms, that means I am likely to lessen or omit entirely the use of transliteration and literal translation of Japanese hokku here, concentrating more on what the old hokku examples mean (or should mean) in English as models for our new verses.  I hope that will serve to make this site less “academic-appearing” and more practical and direct in serving those who want to understand how to write good hokku today.

I will continue, no doubt, to range rather widely in my subject matter, throwing in a non-hokku poem now and then when the mood strikes me, or a commentary on matters not obviously directly relating to hokku.  And I would like to spend some time discussing the “Chinese” influence on our hokku — specifically the effect of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism, and Chinese Nature poetry.  But fear not, I will do this in a practical rather than academic manner — for example, I want to show how to write “Chinese-style” Nature verses in English, and how doing so differs somewhat, yet is nonetheless similar to, hokku.

I hope all of this will not be too disappointing for the Japanophiles and for those who like digging about in the literary and cultural history of hokku in Japan.  But modern hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, as I have said before, should not be a cultural outpost of Japan.  It should be a plant native to the soil in which it grows — Russian hokku in Russia, Welsh hokku in Wales, Brazilian hokku in Brazil, an expression of the environment and language in which it is written.

One more point.  I have said that from now on I want to emphasize hokku as we practice it here.   To do so, we need to distinguish that from everything else that may fall under the category of hokku, the good and the bad, the usable and the impractical.  So I am going to give hokku as taught here a distinguishing name — I will refer to hokku as I teach it as “Yin-Yang” hokku, because as frequent readers here know, I often use the universal elements of Yin and Yang to explain hokku, how it utilizes the changing combinations of those opposite yet complementary forces in Nature in creating verses that are harmonious and unified.  I think that distinguishing our practice of hokku here thus will prove helpful and practical in a number of ways.

One more point.  In the use of old models in the future, I will make no practical distinction between good examples that are chronologically correctly termed hokku and later examples — specifically the better verses of Shiki — that are not.  A good part of what Shiki wrote was, in all but name, hokku.  So I will use whatever serves to illustrate and improve our practice of hokku, regardless of chronology.




We already know that a metaphor, simply speaking, is saying one thing is another.  And we know a simile is saying one thing is like another.  An allegory is “speaking otherwise than one seems to speak,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.  In simple terms that is “saying one thing, but meaning another.”  A symbol is “something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else,” as the same dictionary tells us.

Knowing all this, we are now prepared to take a look at two verses:

Shiragiku no   me ni tatete miru    chiri mo nashi
White-chrysanthemum ‘s eyes at raise look  dust even not

White chrysanthemums;
Lifting the eyes to look —
Not a speck of dust.

This verse was written as a greeting to Bashō’s hostess.  This was a common function of the hokku when used as the first verse of a series of linked verses (haikai no renga).

Botan shibe fukaku   wakeizuru hachi no   nagori kana
Peony pistils deep   separate-emerge  bee ‘s parting-reluctance kana

The bee emerges
From the peony pistils.

This verse was written as a parting verse for one of Bashō’s hosts.

Now it is immediately obvious that both of these verses were written for special occasions — the first as greeting, the second as parting — and so they fall into a particular class of hokku that we call “occasion” hokku (in the old haikai practice, a greeting verse could be the opening verse of a series of linked verses).

Long-time readers of this site will recall that we have talked about  “occasion” hokku before, explaining how they differ from regular hokku.

To understand the peculiar nature of “occasion” hokku, we must understand just what they are.  Keep in mind always the dictum that the best hokku (we are not talking now about bad hokku or the occasional exception here) are not symbols for anything, are not metaphors.  Instead, they make use of layers of associations.  They do not say one thing is another (metaphor), nor do they say one thing is like another (simile).  This is a matter difficult for some people to understand, because they are so accustomed to simile and metaphor in Western verse that they see it even where it does not exist.

There is an interesting yet very simple summer hokku written by Chine-jo (the -jo suffix tells us the writer is a woman).

Easily it glows —
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We could say that this verse has a double meaning, because it was written as Chine-jo’s death verse — but that is not entirely accurate.  To say that the verse is a metaphor for Chine-jo’s death and leave it at that would also be misleading, because the verse uses the old principle that in hokku, one small thing can hold the meaning of something much larger.  For example, we say that in hokku one leaf is all of autumn.

In this verse, the firefly’s glow going easily out expresses all such things in Nature, the fact that if the ego is not struggling against Nature, everything becomes “easy” in life and death, because the individual will dissolves into Nature’s will, as it is put in Canto III of Dante’s Paradiso:

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

Rather it is necessary to this blessed existence
To keep one’s self within the Divine will,
So that our wills may be one..

E ’n la sua volontate è nostra pace:

And in His will is our peace.”

That is the mind of Chine-jo, whose will has become one with the firefly, with Nature, so that

Easily it glows,
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We will often find hokku that, while having their own meaning, to be read as referring to nothing beyond themselves, are yet applied to events in life that are expressed through them.  We find them — as here — in death verses, in verses written for greetings and partings and other such occasions, which is why we call such hokku “occasion” hokku.

That brings us back to the earlier two examples — the white chrysanthemum and the emerging bee.  As “occasion” hokku, these have a double meaning.  The chrysanthemum applies to Bashō’s hostess, on one side; but on the other, it is simply a hokku about a chrysanthemum.  Similarly the emerging bee verse on one side is simply about that; on the other it applies to Bashō’s reluctant departure.  Chiyo-ni’s verse, on one side, is about human death; but on the other side, it is about the light of a firefly going out.

We must not minimize or subordinate either meaning in occasion hokku, but neither should we confuse them simply as allegory or metaphor by saying:  “This says A, but it means B.”  The correct answer is, “This means A and it means B.  Sometimes we will want to read it as A, but for this particular occasion and purpose, it means B.”  Half of the dual function of an occasional verse is, in the words of the O.E.D., speaking otherwise than one seems to speak, which is the definition of allegory; and Bashō quite obviously did, for particular occasions, compose hokku in which he was doing so, as did other composers of such verses.  But we must not forget the non-occasion use of the same hokku, when the original occasion has passed and the hokku still exists and must be appreciated not as allegory but for itself alone.

The solution to the matter lies in the difference between subordination and equality.  If we say, for example, that the verse about the spotless chrysanthemum is a metaphor, or an allegory, or a symbol for Bashō’s hostess, but fail to point out that the verse must also function perfectly as a hokku completely on its own and independent of that allegorical use, then we are subordinating the “ordinary” meaning of the hokku to the allegorical meaning.  If a hokku is strong in its allegorical significance, but weak independent of allegory, then it fails as good hokku.

An “occasion” hokku must be able to function equally well in both its application as “allegory” and in non-occasion, non-allegorical use — at its own obvious “face value,” so to speak.

It is critical when writing occasion hokku that we do not cross the line into making them meaningful only when applied to the event, in which case they would be mere allegories.  All too often the old writers of hokku — particularly those used as the first verse of haikai-no-renga did this.   Instead, they must be fully strong within and as themselves — like the “firefly” verse of Chine-jo — and yet fully expressive of the occasion for which they are written — as we also find in that verse.

Having said all this, what then, do we do with the occasional old hokku that does use metaphor in some way?  We find, for example, Bashō’s autumn hokku:

Yuku aki ya   te o hirogetaru   kuri no iga
Going autumn
ya hands o opened chestnut’s bur

Autumn departing;
With open hands —
The chestnut burs.

Here, in a greeting verse written for a linked-verse-composing party, Bashō is apparently referring to the mature, opened halves of the chestnut bur as “palms” (he actually says “hands” but it is assumed that the means the halves have opened like the hollowed palms of two hands).

The answer is that we do nothing at all.  referring back to the first part of this article, you will recall I said that the best old Japanese hokku do not use obvious metaphor or simile.  And this rather mediocre verse is no exception to that rule.

In our practice of hokku we do not use such verses as models precisely because the use of metaphor or simile detracts from what we want to achieve in the kind of hokku I teach.  A metaphor or simile in verse is essentially a split image, requiring the reader to visualize two different things, such as the chestnut bur halves and the opened palms in the verse by Bashō.  But in hokku we want the focus undivided, direct and strong.

To summarize then:

1.  The best old hokku (and of course good modern hokku) do not use metaphor or simile.

2.  Some old hokku applied to certain occasions such as greeting, parting, and death had the ability to function on two different planes of meaning; one function approximates that known in English as allegorical; the other function was entirely non-allegorical; neither function is subordinated to the other in the best hokku, making such a verse non-allegorical (and non-metaphorical) in the common English sense of the word, which requires the subordination of one function to the other.

Do you still find all of this somewhat confusing?  No problem.  Just let the academics bicker pointlessly over it, but remember not to use metaphor or simile or allegory in your hokku, with the possible exception of the double function of “occasion” hokku as explained above — if from time to time you may feel moved to write an “occasion” hokku.  If you do not feel so moved, you may ignore them entirely.



Issa, whom we do not often use as a model, wrote this summer hokku:

From below
The bridge I creep across —
A cuckoo!

Though Issa says merely “bridge,” we can tell from his timid creeping across it that it is a hanging bridge over a canyon or ravine.  As he fearfully, hesitantly crosses, suddenly from far below he hears the “ho-to-to” cry of the bird the Japanese call the hototogisu, a kind of cuckoo.

Some writers think that Issa may simply have seen the bird below, but that would cause the hokku to lose its effect.  The whole point of it is the startling, unexpected sudden cry from below that emphasizes the feeling of the height and precariousness of crossing the little hanging bridge.



The Germans have a great expression — “Na, und?”  It is the equivalent of the American “So what?” — or more briefly, “So?”

That should be our attitude toward those who like to argue and intellectualize about hokku.

Suppose, for a moment, that Bashō’s practice of hokku was in some or many respects very different from how we practice it today.

Suppose, further, that old hokku had nothing whatsoever to do with “Zen” or with spirituality.

Suppose, finally, that what we practice today as hokku had little or nothing in common with the old hokku.  What would all that change in our aesthetics and practice?  Precisely nothing, because we need no authorization from any actual or supposed authority.

Why?  Because we do not do this or that in hokku “because Bashō did it.”  We do it because it works in conveying precisely what we want to convey in the English language and in non-Japanese cultures today — verse focused on Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, expressing the continual changes of Yin and Yang — verse not as intellection, not as “literature,” but as sensory experience — tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, expressed in poverty, simplicity, and transience, and based in a deep, non-dogmatic spirituality.

We could, in fact, teach and practice our hokku without the slightest reference to Japan or old Japanese writers, because our modern hokku has its body of principles, practices, and aesthetics that stand perfectly well on their own.

And if we wished, we could choose an entirely new name for the kind of verse we write.  That we do not is merely a nod of respect to the old hokku tradition.

That is one reason why in hokku we have no reason to argue and debate with those who practice other kinds of verse.  If people come to us quoting this or that writer on the history or practice of old hokku, saying that what we do differs from it in one way or another, we really have nothing to say to them, because it does not matter whether it is true or not.  Our aesthetics and our practice stand on their own.

The point of saying all this is that our practice of hokku is not validated by anything said or done in the past in Japan, as someone might try to validate a religious dogma by referring to the “scriptures.”  Our practice of hokku is self-validating.  It is what it is because it does what we want it to do, and it does it superbly well.  That is a remarkably liberating position, because it frees us from all the petty quarrels and bickering that plague other kinds of brief verse practice.

So if people tell us that our hokku differs from their understanding of old hokku — no matter what they may call it — in this or that way, we  can only respond, “Perhaps, but that is irrelevant.”


I am always surprised and amazed by those who speak of hokku as though it were something outdated and to be discarded.  The emphasis today is on “new,” “new,” “new” and “different,” “different, “different.”

What people with such childish thinking do not realize is that everything one sees is continually new, continually different.  It is their way of seeing that is the same.  That is why Thoreau told us that what we need is not new clothes, but rather a new wearer of clothes.  We must change how we see things if we want to follow hokku well.

I like very much — and apply to hokku — what Robert Frost once said of his own kind of poetry:  “It is an old-fashioned way of being new.”

Buson wrote this summer hokku:

June rain
In the downspout;
The ears of old age.



There is a summer hokku by Kikaku that requires very few words in English translation:

Inazuma ya   kinō wa higashi    kyō wa nishi
Lightning ya
yesterday wa east  today wa west.

Yesterday east,
Today west.

Even though it has a wider time scale than most hokku, it does have a sense of concentrated power and change.

We have seen that many hokku use harmonies either of similarity or of contrast.  In this verse we have the contrast of past and present, yesterday and today; and in addition we have the contrast of East and West.

That is why this hokku gives us a sense of space.  There is the  vast space between yesterday and today, which is in harmony with the vast space between the eastern sky and the western sky.  Both are unified by the lightning.



There is a very interesting old summer hokku by Ryusūi:

Mayoigo no   naku naku tsukamu   hotaru kana
Lost-child ‘s  crying crying grasping fireflies kana

A lost child;
He cries and cries
And grasps at fireflies.

Some verses make such excellent metaphors for one thing or another that we must resist the temptation to read them as such, because if we do so read them, we lose the poetry at which hokku excels — the poetry of the “thing-event” itself, with nothing added.

Westerners often simply do not understand this, because Western poetry very seldom enjoys something for itself; they think that one must add a “poet’s eye” to it, meaning additional commentary or metaphor or speculation or elaboration or ornamentation.  But in hokku it is just the unspoken significance of the thing-event that is wanted, none of the rest, thank you!

What do I mean by a “thing-event”?  I mean simply something being what it is, doing what it is doing; a leaf is both a thing (a leaf) and an event (leafing).  Human beings human-be.  Nothing exists stable and unchanging, not a stone, not a river, not a galaxy.  So the “thing-event” in this verse is the little-child-crying-as-he-grasps-at-fireflies.

Robert Frost, in his poem “A Tuft of Flowers,” wrote:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside the reedy brook the scythe had bared…

The mower in the dew had loved them thus
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.”  That is the very spirit of hokku and its humility.  When we want to be “poets,” we are taking the focus away from what we write and putting it on ourselves — and that is the opposite of hokku.  Our writing should not be to draw the thought of the reader to us, but rather to just let him or her experience the unspoken significance of the thing-event, whether it be a tuft of flowers spared by a scythe or a little child weeping and grasping at fireflies.  As we say in hokku, we must be silent so that Nature may speak.

Now, having warned the reader that Ryusūi’s hokku is NOT a metaphor, NOT a symbol, we are now free to say again that such a hokku, though it is neither of those things, nonetheless does make a good metaphor for human life.

It is interesting that in Japanese, the first word of the expression meaning “lost child” — mayoi — also is the Japanese translation of the Buddhist sanskrit term māyā, which means “illusion.”  Māyā is the illusion of existence, our attachment to the idea of a personal “self,” our getting caught up in thinking that running after wealth and power and fame and sensual pleasure are real and important.  People forget the old saying, “Birth is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.”  They neglect their spiritual development, spending all their time on television or parties, or (gasp!) the Internet.  They do not know or have forgotten the old Buddhist parable from the Mahayana Lotus Sutra:  A group of children were busy playing in a house that caught fire, too absorbed in their games to notice.  Their father called and called for them to come out, but they were so wrapped up in their entertainments that they paid no heed to the fire or to him.

We are all in a burning house.  We are all lost children.  And we weep and weep about it, but what do we do?  We continue to “grasp at fireflies,” even as we weep.

We are perfectly free to use a hokku as a metaphor, but we must not make the mistake of saying or thinking it IS a metaphor.  And when we so utilize it, we must give up the poetry of the hokku in order to make our own use of it, putting it to a task for which it was not intended, no matter how well it does the job.



Jōsō wrote a summer hokku:

In the white rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos

That is a very literal translation.  In English we would not be likely to say “white rain.”  Instead we would probably say,

In the clear rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos.

This, as you all know by now, shows “harmony of similarity.”  The rain falls, the ants run down.  “Down” is a Yin direction (up is Yang);  rain is Yin.  If the ants were going up the bamboos, there would be, of course, a contrast.  But here the harmony is in the falling rain, the downward-running ants.  And of course in English there is the subtle humor of ants running down the bamboos when we would think of rainwater running down the bamboos.

Blyth, in his translation, made an intuitive leap:  If the ants are all coming down the bamboos, he thought, it must be the end of the day — twilight or evening.  All the rest of the day the ants would be busily going up.  So he translated it:

An evening shower;
The ants are running
Down the bamboos.

Of course ants will run to escape rain, so we may choose which approach we prefer.

In any case, it makes an effective hokku, with the clear rain falling and trickling down the stalks of bamboo as the dark ants come rushing downward.  It has a lot of movement, and that gives it life.



Today was beautiful where I am.  After days and days of pouring rain and cool temperatures, the sky cleared, the sun shone, and the temperature rose into the low 80s.

It made me think of the old lines from the Song of Solomon:

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

How much more poetic that is in “King James” English than in modern versions.  And I like the humor of people today having forgotten that “turtle” at the time of translation meant a turtle dove — and consequently wondering what the voice of a turtle might sound like.

There are the words attributed to Jesus in the King James Version:

I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

How far more beautiful that is than the modern

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

But I digress.

The sudden warmth reminds me of what is in store for us, the kind of heat of which Buson wrote:

Are hot things;
The summer grove.

That, of course, is a “statement” hokku, which I just discussed in a recent posting.  You will recall that a “statement” hokku makes a statement that is simply true.  But in making it the writer tells us something that we did not realize we knew — until we read the hokku.

The “something seen in a new way” in this verse is the combination of the spiderwebs and the heat in the silent, heavy air of the grove of trees.  Ordinarily we think of a web as light and airy, but walking through a hot grove of trees on a hot day, with spiderwebs sticking to one’s face and hands, one has a “little enlightenment”:

Are hot things;
The summer grove.

This verse shows the Yang nature of summer with its heat.  Even things we ordinarily think of in cool or airy Yin terms — a grove of trees — spiderwebs — have here become Yang.



Sooner or later (I hope sooner) in the study of hokku, one begins to ask just what makes an extraordinary hokku.  The question is inevitable because all of us, in our practice, are going to write lots of very ordinary hokku — pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable.  Here is a “summer” hokku as an example:

A clear morning;
Above the distant clouds
Blue mountains rise.

That is what I like to call a “block print” hokku.  It makes an attractive scene, like the landscape block prints of the Japanese artists Yoshida and Hasui, but there is nothing striking or memorable about it.

Why is that?  We can answer with what generally defines a good hokku — a good hokku shows us something seen in a new way.  That should be engraved on the memory of every student of hokku — something seen in a new way.

Though the example hokku is not unpleasing, there is really nothing new about it, no different perspective that allows us to see something freshly.  And that in essence is what makes the difference between an ordinary hokku and an extraordinary hokku.

As an example of something seen in a new way, here is a summer hokku by Onitsura:

The leaping trout,
Clouds flowing.

This is another of those hokku requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, but such an intuitive leap in hokku should be easy, not difficult, and should happen split-second quickly.  Onitsura watches a trout leap out of the water, and in the water below the trout, passing clouds are reflected.

Such an unusual perspective often distinguishes extraordinary hokku from merely ordinary hokku.  Also note the sense of movement and change in Onitsura’s hokku, something we do not find in the “ordinary” example, where everything seems static and unmoving, just as in a block print.  Generally we avoid hokku in which nothing is moving or changing, though it does not hurt to write one now and then.  Movement adds energy to a hokku.  An exception, however, would be when we deliberately want to stress the lack of movement in a verse, which can happen occasionally.

Don’t fear to write ordinary hokku.  You may wish to create them to remember a particular time or for some other reason.  But be aware that what really makes hokku worthwhile is the good hokku, even the extraordinary hokku, and to write those we must see something in a new way, from a different perspective.  That different perspective need not be as obviously striking as in Onitsura’s example.

Over time we will write hokku that range from ordinary to better-than-ordinary to an occasional extraordinary verse.  All are part of learning.  But we should be able to tell the difference.  That is why in hokku we place such great emphasis on understanding its aesthetics and techniques.  If you do not know what makes a good hokku, an extraordinary hokku, how can you write them?  But learn the principles of hokku, and your discernment will improve.



A reader, having seen one of the hokku of Bashō, asked me exactly what is meant by the term “floating world.”  Was Bashō in it?  Are we in it?

It all depends on the sense in which we understand the term.  Here is the hokku in question (an autumn verse):

Kiso no tochi   ukiyo no hito no    miyage kana
Kiso  ‘s horse-chestnuts    floating-world ‘s people ‘s souvenir kana

We can translate as:

Horse-chestnuts from Kiso —
A souvenir for people
Of the floating world.

Kiso was a region in the mountains, isolated from the urban areas of Japan.  Chinese horse chestnuts grew there, and they were often considered a kind of symbol of the isolated, hermit life, and were even used as food by hermits.  so Bashō says he will bring them back to the people of the “floating world” as a souvenir.

From this alone we can see that Bashō made a distinction between a rural, hermit life (which of course he considered the “poetic” life) and the life of the city, which at that time meant primarily life in the big city of Edo, which later became Tokyo.

So for Bashō, the “floating world” meant, in part, the life of the denizens of the city with their sensuous pleasures, their plays, their restaurants and teahouses.  And though it meant in particular the way of life in the Yoshiwara, the “red light” district of the city, Bashō intends it here in a more general sense to mean those who are caught up in the life and entertainments of the “world” — exemplified by life in the city — as opposed to the rural countryside.

We can understand the meaning of the term better if we realize that it is, to some extent, the equivalent of the Chinese Buddhist term “The World of Dust,” which means the world of going after pleasures of the senses, after money, fame, and delights.  In fact the term ukiyo (uki = floating, yo = world), if written differently in Japanese but pronounced the same, also means “The World of Sorrow,” which is the world in which we all live, the world of birth and death and suffering.  A person on a spiritual path seeks to transcend this floating world, this world of sorrow, by turning away from the pleasures and interests that obsess and absorb the ordinary person.

So what is the “floating world”?  Very specifically, it is the Yoshiwara district and its life.  More generally, it is the pleasure, money, and fame-seeking life of the city.  But even more generally, it is the world of all people not on a spiritual path, of people spending their days and years in trying to have a good time and make money, people who do not give a thought to a simple life and to spiritual development.

For Bashō, the horse chestnuts of Kiso had the underlying significance of a simple, hermit-like life, which again he considered to be the “poetic” life.  In contrast to that was the “floating world,” the world of those caught by the illusions of pleasure and money and position, and it was to those people in “the world” that Bashō wished to bring the horse chestnuts of Kiso.  It is a distinction between the “worldly” and the “unworldly.”

That this was Bashō’s understanding is confirmed by a variant of the hokku in which the simple term yo (the world) is used instead of uki-yo = (the floating world).

We can see, then, that this is a hokku of contrasts — the rural horse chestnuts on one side, the city dwellers — those in the World of Dust, on the other — and both are linked by Bashō, who unifies the two.

It is the kind of hokku that is understood in Japan but does not “travel well,” meaning that it requires too much cultural explanation to be effective when translated from one language and culture to another.

And by the way, the horse chestnuts in question are not the chestnuts (Castanea sativa) that we roast at Christmas.  They are a coarser, bitter kind (Aesculus chinensis) that require considerable preparation to make them edible because they have a high toxin content.  They are more like the horse chestnuts known in Britain as “conkers,” and often in America as “Buckeyes,” generally considered inedible.



When we talk about season in hokku, what do we mean exactly?

Well, everyone knows that in temperate climates we traditionally have four seasons — spring, summer, autumn, and winter.  Every hokku we write belongs to one of these seasons, which is why when we write a hokku we mark it with the name of the season, so its classification will not be lost.

However, in actual writing, we have more divisions than simply those four.  We really have:

1.  Spring comes;
2.  Early spring;
3.  Mid-spring;
4.  Late spring;
5.  Spring departs;
6.  Summer comes;
7.  Early summer;
8.  Mid-summer;
9.  Late summer;
10.  Summer departs
11.  Autumn comes;
12.  Early autumn;
13.  Mid-autumn;
14.  Late autumn;
15.  Autumn departs
16.  Winter comes;
17.  Early winter;
18.  Mid-winter;
19.  Late winter;
20.  Winter departs.

We often use these or very similar terms in hokku, so practically there are twenty seasonal divisions in our hokku, by which, when desired, we can focus not just on a particular season, but even on a particular time of season.

But getting back to the original four, these seasonal divisions are not arbitrary.  They depend on the relation of the axis of the earth to the sun.  Summer means maximum sun; winter means minimum sun.  Both autumn and spring mean moderate sun, one with the sun declining and the other with the sun increasing.

Now obviously this “declining sun” and “increasing sun” correspond exactly to our great friends in hokku, Yin and Yang.  Sunlight is Yang; darkness is Yin.  So the height of summer is maximum Yang, the depth of winter maximum Yin.  Spring is growing Yang and declining Yin, and autumn is growing Yin and declining Yang.

It is obvious, then, that the seasons are not artificial divisions.  Further, in hokku, our seasons do not change exactly in keeping with the calendar dates.  Some years spring may come early, or summer may arrive late.  That means our attitude toward season depends not just on calendar dates, but also on what is actually happening in Nature.

When hokku began to be replaced with other kinds of verse around the turn of the 20th century, gradually some abandoned the seasonal connection, considering it too bothersome or outdated.  In doing so, they were writing non-hokku verses, because season and hokku are indissolubly linked.  Just as in Nature everything takes place in a seasonal context, so it does also in hokku.

One of the greatest differences between old hokku and modern hokku is in how we keep the seasonal connection.  In modern hokku it is done by marking each verse with the season in which it is written, and also in some verses, as seen above, by using an actual seasonal “focus term” such as “early summer” within the verse.

In old hokku, however, the matter was far more complex.  Old hokku used “season words” — terms which could only signify a certain season.  “Clear water,” for example, signified a summer verse.  To learn such season indicators became a very complex and time-consuming matter, and whole dictionaries of such terms were compiled.  Often it took years to become familiar with the terms and to learn to use them well.

Of course in old hokku there was a secondary layer to the use of specific “season words” as well.  It became a cultural matter, a literary convention, and hokku developed a set of fixed subjects.  Whatever its advantages, all of this led to complexity and increasing artificiality, which is just the opposite of what we want the connection between a hokku and the season to be.

That is why in English we use simple seasonal classification.  It is more faithful to Nature, more faithful to the actual times and changes of the seasons.  Writing our verses in seasonal context keeps our thoughts in harmony with the seasons.  That is why in hokku we do not write a verse out of season.  We do not, for example, write a spring verse in autumn.  Similarly, we do not read an autumn verse in spring, or a winter verse in summer, and so on.  To do so would put our thoughts out of harmony with the season — and in keeping with the spiritual roots of hokku, we do not want to live in the past or in the future — we want to live in the present.  In fact that is the only place we can be — the ever-changing present.

So as other kinds of verse ignore or abandon a seasonal context, it is maintained as integral to hokku.  Without its connection to Nature and season, hokku would no longer be hokku, just another kind of brief verse.

To remind you of more aspects of the seasonal connection in hokku, I will continue here with an earlier posting on the subject.  It will repeat some of what I have already said, but perhaps that will help to fix the matter in your memory:

It is very easy to superficially notice, or to unthinkingly gloss over, the critical importance of season in hokku.  It is not going too far to say that hokku is the verse of the seasons — that the REAL subject of every verse is the season in which it is written.

Seen from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the writers of old hokku placed so much emphasis on the importance of season that subjects were classified by season, and these classifications — specific words indicating the season and incorporated into the hokku — were compiled into dictionaries.

The great advantage of such a system is that one had only to mention the word in the verse and the season was evoked.  For example the word “haze” in a hokku let the reader know immediately that it was a “Spring” hokku.  That was a great benefit.  But there was also a negative side.  The classification of season words became artificial to some extent, and the numbers of them so great that learning how to properly use them took years.

That is why in hokku as I teach it, we still emphasize season, but no longer keep lists or classifications of season words.  Instead we categorize every hokku by season.  Each verse — when written — is marked with the season.  And when shared that seasonal classification is passed on with the verse.

There is a very serious potential danger in this system too, however, if it is understood only superficially and not deeply.

The danger is precisely this:  Some writers think that merely categorizing a verse by season makes it a verse OF that season — that if I write, for example, about getting a drink of water as autumn begins, that automatically makes it an autumn verse.

This is a very serious error, and it is related to the equally serious error of thinking that hokku are just assemblages of random things.

The whole point of the use of season words in old hokku — and the point of seasonal classification in modern hokku — is to express the essential nature of the season through events in which that essential nature manifests.

This is not really as difficult as it first sounds.  We all know that pumpkins, scarecrows, and falling leaves are manifestations of autumn.  Even a child recognizes them as autumn subjects.  BUT THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.

Did you ever wonder why I talk so much about such things as Yin and Yang?  It is because they are direct pointers not only to what is happening in a season, but to what manifests — what evokes the essential nature — of a season.

NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON.   And so of course, things that do not, are not really appropriate for hokku of that season, though they may be appropriate for many other kinds of verse.

If you want to write hokku, then, you must be aware of the character of  each season, of its inherent qualities.  One can begin such learning — which is really a becoming aware — very simply, and then gradually build up a deeper understanding of these things.  Anyone knows intuitively, for example, that spring is what is young and fresh and new, summer is maturity, autumn is declining and withering, and winter is the prevalence of darkness, cold and stillness.

In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin.  That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature.  In the day, morning is growing Yang; noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang, and the middle of night is maximum Yin.  In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.

In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it changes to its opposite and gives way to growing Yin.

Summer, then, is extremely Yang.  That is manifested in its heat.  Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness.  Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows.  Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows.  The same applies to moisture, which is Yin.  In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.

Consider all of this carefully.  We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology.  But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.

I will explain all of this in more detail as we progress.  The important things to remember now are that Hokku, the verse of Nature, is also the verse of the seasons; and further, that there are things appropriate to each season because they manifest its character.  And those things that do not show us the character of the season are not appropriate for hokku written in that season.

I hope this comes as a revelation to many of you.

Knowing this explains why specific season words were so critical to old hokku.  They were an attempt to express a season by listing things in which the character of the season was manifested.  Though it had its flaws and was complex and took a long time to learn, we could say that the system of specific season words is nonetheless in a sense the “easy” way;  what is theoretically appropriate to a season is already decided and codified in a dictionary of season words.

But in modern hokku more is demanded of us.  We are able to avoid the artificiality and complexity to which the use of specific season words eventually led because we replace them with simple seasonal classification of each verse.  But as a consequence, we must become  far more personally aware of what is inherently, aesthetically appropriate to each season.  Otherwise no matter how we classify a verse by season, if we do not understand the inherent nature and character of a season and the resulting aesthetics appropriate to it, we will fail miserably at hokku.

What this means is that we must become more like our ancestors, who were keenly aware of each season, its weather, its changes, characteristics, plants, foods and cultural associations.



What I like to call the “old style” hokku — meaning the best hokku in the period before Onitsura and Bashō — often, as we have seen in the hokku of Sōgi, combine two things and then add a third to unite them all in harmony.

Here is such a verse by Sōgi:

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

The later technique however — which we most often use — is somewhat different.  Instead of three rather equal-seeming things, as in Sōgi, we get more of a sense of two things combined, or rather a subject-action and then another subject that completes, as in this verse by Shōha:

A boy
Getting a dog to run;
The summer moon.

This kind of hokku is quite familiar to us.  We know it as the “standard” hokku, which uses the setting, subject, action pattern.  In Shōha’s verse it manifests like this:

A boy (subject)
Getting a dog to run; (action)
The summer moon. (setting)

Remember that the setting is usually the “large” or “encompassing” part of the hokku.

Bashō wrote

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

In that verse the subject is the octopus traps.  The action is the fleeting dreams, and the setting, again, is the “large” or “encompassing” element, the summer moon.  One can see from this that we need not align setting, subject and action rigidly.  In hokku they are fluid, and can change position.

The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote,

Touched by the line
Of the fishing pole —
The summer moon.

This is one of those verses requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, who will see that the line of the fishing pole is touching the summer moon reflected in the water.  Speaking loosely, we could say that the summer moon is the setting, the line of the fishing pole is the subject, and “touched by” is the action.  But of course here the summer moon functions as both setting and as primary subject.  That again should alert the reader that in composing, we need not be too rigid in our categories and arrangements.

But there is a bit more to say about Chiyo-ni’s verse.  In hokku aesthetics, a sense of transience is very important.  Those who created and practiced hokku were very aware that life is short and all human endeavors fleeting.  And they were very aware that the world as we see it is transitory and uncertain, like the reflection of the moon in a summer river.  That feeling is very important to hokku because it is a part of life.

Its presence in hokku comes from the Buddhist teaching of anicca —impermanence.  The three “seals” of existence are dukkha — the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of things; anicca — the un-lastingness of things; and anatta — the lack of a real self in what we customarily regard as our “self.”  In spiritual literature life is often compared to a dream from which only those who sincerely devote themselves to the practice of spiritual “cultivation” — meditation and right action — are likely to awake.  The moon in Buddhist literature is often a symbol for enlightenment.  But in hokku things are not symbols or metaphors for other things.  Instead all of these associations “soak into” hokku and influence how they affect us.

It is all in keeping with the old lines from the Forest of Zen Sayings:

Scoop up water, and the moon is in your hands;
Handle flowers, and the scent soaks into your garments.

That is exactly what gave rise to hokku originally.  The culture of Japan was permeated with Buddhist thought, and just as the scent of flowers soaks into one’s garments, so the fragrance of Buddhist spirituality soaked into hokku.  And that was true even in writers of hokku who were not particularly spiritual.  It is this underlying spiritual attitude toward life that made and still makes hokku what it was and is.



Taigi wrote:

A summer shower;
What a sound breaks out
Atop the forest!

The sound of which Taigi speaks is the sudden sound of countless drops of rain striking the countless leaves of the forest canopy.  It is an awesome sound, the sound of that particular time when the warm rain of summer and the broad summer leaves of the forest come together.  We feel the abundance of rain, the abundance of leaves, in the great abundance of sound.