Those who read a posting here only now and then will learn little or nothing.  Those who read here regularly, with attention, will gain over time a good understanding of the basic principles of hokku.

For example, I recently discussed the two kinds of harmony in hokku, and I discussed the importance of Yin and Yang.

Let’s take a look at a verse by Kyoroku:

The sun shines
On white cotton cloth;
Cloud peaks above.

If you have been reading with diligence here, you will be saying to yourself, “Oh, that is harmony of similarity!  The sun is bright, the cotton cloth is white, and the clouds above are also white.  And you are likely to also add, “The sunlight is Yang, the white color of the cotton cloth is Yang, and the white of the clouds is also Yang!

That was an easy one, a rather obvious example.

But here is a hokku by Tohō:

Heat waves;
The sand of the cliff falls
Grain by grain.

Eventually one will realize that the heat waves are something temporary, transitory.  But paradoxically so is the sandy cliff, which is falling grain by grain.  So in spite of the vastly different time scale, this too is a hokku with harmony of similarity.

In a way, the latter verse is like the old saying,

The morning glory differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.

In other words, both are transitory, passing — just on a different time scale.

Incidentally, readers of Blyth’s translations — particularly American readers — are likely to be misled by his translation of Tohō’s verse:

Summer colts;
The sand of the cliff
Falls grain by grain.

Americans are likely to see young horses frolicking about in sunshine near the sandy cliff.  But “summer colts” is a largely British term that means simply the undulating air near the ground on a warm day — or in plain “American,” heat waves.  The Japanese term — for those who are interested — is kagerō.


The fundamental principle of hokku is that it is about Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature — set in the context of the seasons.  Here is a hokku by Shōha emphasizing the human part of that.  It is particularly appropriate to the last few weeks of weather where I am:

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

This verse is not about a boy or a kite or the rain.  It is about a-boy-and-a-kite-and-the-rain, all as one thing.  Full of impatient and frustrated hope, the poor little guy waits and waits for the rain to stop so he may fly his kite.  And his parents feel his pain, the suffering of childhood.

Without the rain there would be no hokku; without the kite there would be no hokku; and without the child there would be no hokku.  It takes them all together to present us with this verse, a verse that shows us “humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.”

Shiki wrote:

In the water jug
A frog is floating;
Summer rain.

This is a very watery, Yin verse — water in the jug, water in the rain, and a watery frog.  It makes one think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s verse,

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrellas here,

And on the ships at sea.



One cannot compose hokku without a form, and the form of English-language hokku is simple and practical.  One need not worry about what it is to be because it already exists and serves quite well.

A hokku in English consists of three lines, the center often (but not always) a little longer than the other two, which are approximately equal in length.

As a guide for length, hokku in English has as its standard a sequence of 2, 3, and 2 “essential words.”  Essential words, as the term is used in hokku, means those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar.  That means we need not count articles such as “the,” “a,” or “an.”  Nor need we often count prepositions such as “to,” “from,” “under,” “in,” and “on.”  That leaves us largely with nouns, verbs and an occasional personal pronoun.

There is a hokku by Bonchō:

The razor,
Rusted in one night;
The summer rains.

The essential words in that verse would be:

rusted one night
summer rains

That gives us a pattern of 1-3-2 essential words, which is close enough to the standard.  We may also go slightly over the standard, and often we will use precisely the standard of 2-3-2.  One need not be too rigid about it, because the purpose of the standard is merely to ensure that we do not begin adding needless words, putting too much into a hokku and violating the principle of poverty.

Punctuation is very important in English-language hokku.  It has two related purposes:  It indicates the length of pause and the nature of separation or connection between two lines — working in a somewhat “musical” sense, and equally important, it guides the reader smoothly through the verse without confusion.  Both of these are significant in how a reader experiences a verse.

Punctuation, like the overall form, is something already determined in English-language hokku.  Once one knows the significance of each mark, it really becomes quite easy:

To understand hokku punctuation, we first must know that every verse consists of two parts, a longer and a shorter.  There is always a punctuation mark separating them, and there is always a punctuation mark at the end of the verse.

The two parts of a hokku may be separated by:

1.  A semicolon (;) — this gives a definite, strong meditative pause.
2.  A comma (,) — this gives a brief connective pause.
3.  A question mark (?) — which of course indicates a question.
4.  A dash ( — ) indicating a long connective pause.

A hokku usually ends with a period (.), more rarely with an exclamation mark (!), a question mark (?)  and occasionally ellipses (….)

Finally, hokku in English have the first letter of each line capitalized, and of course the first letter of any proper noun (a name, such as “Spirit Lake”) is capitalized as well.

This form — this system of lines, of punctuation, of capitalization — works extremely well and does everything we need to do in a hokku.  Because it is all settled and standardized, there is nothing to excite quibbles.  It works and it works well, requiring no change.

Knowing all this, if one sees a verse that looks vaguely like hokku but is not capitalized or punctuated, or has merely a hyphen as a separating mark, we know it is not a hokku, but some other kind of brief verse.  I am speaking in all cases here of hokku written in English, of course, though the same general principles apply to other European languages.

I have already said that every hokku consists of two parts — a longer part and a shorter part — and that these are separated by a punctuation mark.  We see that in a verse by Kikaku:

Yesterday in the East,
Today in the West.

Notice that each line begins with a capital letter;
Notice that the internal separation mark in this verse is an exclamation point, which indicates something unusual or unexpected;
Notice that the verse ends with a period;
And finally, note that the hokku consists of a pattern of 1-2-2 essential words, quite close enough to our 2-3-2 standard.

That is a quick summary of the hokku form in English.  Yet a verse can be correctly punctuated and capitalized, and be the right general length, and still fail as a hokku.  That is why without knowing the aesthetics and techniques, there is really no hokku.  The outer form is the shell, like the shell of a walnut.  And as with a walnut, it is what is inside that makes it worthwhile.  That means to practice hokku, one must devote considerable time to its aesthetics and techniques, to learning its overall spirit and how it is applied when one writes.  Having covered the form of the hokku, we are now ready to go on to that deeper topic, to what really makes a hokku a hokku and not something else.



In the last posting we reviewed Yin and Yang in hokku, and introduced the two kinds of contrast.  This latter is important in itself, so I shall say more about it.

Hokku may exhibit either:
1.  Harmony of contrast
2.  Harmony of similarity

Harmony of contrast is the inclusion of elements that are quite opposite to one another — something that is hot against something that is cool; something wet against something dry; something unmoving against something moving.

Harmony of similarity includes things that are similar in character (again in terms of Yin and Yang).  For example, we may have a crow and evening (here the similarity is in darkness); we may have a child and springtime (here the similarity is in “youngness” or “freshness”; we may have billowing clouds and the sail on a boat (similarity in “swelling”). All these are things similar in character.

When we have a hokku including similar things, we must be careful not to understand this as simile (meaning one thing in a verse is said to be “like” another) or metaphor (meaning one thing in verse “is” another).  The difference is very important.

If we say, as did Robert Burns,

O, my luve’s like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June.

we are using simile — one thing is openly said to be like another.

In hokku, however, we do not say one thing is “like” another.  Instead, when we put two “similar” things in a hokku — for example an old man and the evening (both “aged” things with increasing Yin), we say that one thing reflects another.

The difference between simile and internal reflection is that in simile, the mind of the reader is pulled between two images — a young woman and  a red rose.  In internal reflection, however, the two similar elements reflect and complement and enhance one another.

In this site I shall treat Shiki — who really marked the shift from the hokku to new kinds of brief verse — as a writer of hokku, because in fact he maintained the form and technique, the seasonal connection and the focus on Nature.

He wrote:

Though the hole in the stone lantern —
The sea.

Look at all these elements:
1.  Coolness (Yin) — cold is Yin.
2.  A hole (Yin) — absence is Yin.
3.  Stone (Yin) — immobility is Yin.
4.  Sea (Yin) — water is Yin.

All of these “like” elements reflect one another, creating an airy hokku filled with coolness, in spite of the fact that this is a summer verse!  It is pleasant to experience these “cool” things in summer.

There are many reasons for an experience that strikes us as significant enough to make a hokku, but a major contributing factor is often the presence of such internal reflection in the elements of an experience.  When we have such reflection, we say the elements of the verse are harmonious, that they work together to create a unified experience.

But again, we must remember that in hokku there are two kinds of harmony — the harmony of similar things and the harmony of dissimilar things.  That is why in summer, verses which have internally reflecting Yang elements (heat, dryness, roughness, brightness, etc.) are harmonious, but so are hokku with internally reflecting dissimilar and contrary elements (a spring of water against the heat of day, shade against sunlight, a fluttering bird in the still silence of a forest).

Everything I have discussed here is very important to an understanding of hokku and its aesthetics.  Next time you are out for a walk, look for harmonies of similarity and harmonies of contrast.  Eventually you will see that this is just another way of describing the changes and transformations and interplay of the two universal elements, Yin and Yang.

This concept is very ancient.  In Daoist cosmology, first there is only unity, The ONE.  The ONE separates into two — the primal opposites of Yin and Yang, and the interplay of these two in all proportions and combinations then creates the “Ten Thousand Things,” by which is meant everything that exists, the cell, the flower, the world, the star, the galaxy, the universe.



All hokku are seasonal hokku, being written and marked (as practiced today) with one of the four seasons.  That comes from hokku having originated in a temperate climate.  In other climates this may vary to a summer season, a rainy season, and a winter season; to a spring, summer, and fall without winter; or  to even just a dry season and a wet season.

I am in a temperate zone with a climate similar to that of Japan (and of Britain), so hokku as I teach it has four seasons.  Those individuals living in areas with fewer seasons should adapt their hokku to those areas.

Because hokku is seasonal verse, we write according to the present season, and not only that, we read hokku according to the season as well.  That is to keep us in harmony with Nature.  Occasionally we will use out-of-season verses for learning, but in doing so we must remember that these are exceptions to the standard practice when writing and reading.

But on to summer hokku.  We cannot fully understand the aesthetics behind summer hokku without a knowledge of the two elements of Yin and Yang that comprise the universe.  These are qualities that are opposite, but which combine and work in contrary harmony throughout all things.

Yin is cold, silent, motionless, wet, dark, passive.
Yang is warm, noisy, moving, dry, bright, and active.

The entire year is a cycle of change from Yin to Yang and back again:

Winter is deepest Yin.  When Yin reaches its maximum it begins to turn to Yang.  As Yang grows, winter changes to spring.  As the Yang of spring grows further, it changes to summer, and finally it reaches a point of maximum Yang — the height of summer, at which it begins to change to Yin.  As Yin grows, summer fades into autumn (fall), and as Yin grows even more as Yang declines, autumn dissolves into Winter, and Yin grows to its maximum until the cycle repeats.

The same cycle happens in a day.  The middle of night is Yin, which begins to change to Yang.  Dawn is a mixture of Yin and Yang, and Yang grows until midday, when it reaches its maximum and begins to decline into afternoon as Yin increases, then evening, then night again.

This is the cycle too of life, including human life.  Birth is comparable to the beginning of spring; youth is the height of spring, which fades into the summer of maturity; then comes the decline into autumn, which is like the late afternoon of the day.  And then come evening and night, old age and death.

One will see these cycles repeated again and again in hokku, and when we know their correspondences, we will begin to grasp an important part of the aesthetics of the hokku.

Summer, then, is a season when Yang grows gradually to its height before beginning its decline into autumn.  In the first part of summer, Yin declines as Yang increases.  In the second part, Yin grows as Yang begins its decline.

The most obvious characteristics of summer then, are the Yang characteristics of heat and dryness.  This is just the opposite of the Yin characteristics — cold and dampness — of winter.  So we can say that both summer and winter are the “extreme” seasons, while both spring and summer are the “balanced” seasons in which both Yin and Yang work out their proportions without extremes.

That was a rather long but essential introduction.  But knowing all that, we now know that because summer is one of the “extreme” seasons, its hokku are likely to often be characterized by opposites.  That is why Yin qualities are frequently so important in summer hokku.  It is Yin that brings out the “extreme” character of the season.  So we only realize fully the importance of water (Yin) on the hottest and driest days of summer.  The same may be said of the coolness (Yin) of a breeze on a blazing hot summer day.  And there are further interesting but opposing combinations of the two, for example the sweltering heat (Yang) of a summer night (Yin).

It is important in discussing these combinations and permutations to realize that the balances and proportions of Yin and Yang are constantly changing and are not absolutes.  There are Yin elements to be found even in the height of summer, and we often take advantage of these to set off the intensity of the Yang elements of heat and light and dryness.

I recall when in my college days an instructor asked us all a question about how one character in a play acted as a “foil” to another.  It quickly became obvious that none of us knew what he meant by that, assuming mistakenly that he meant a “foil” in the sense of a fencing sword.  But the use of the term originates in a time when thin, bright metal foil was placed behind an inferior gemstone in a setting to enhance its brightness and make it stand out.  One thing being a “foil” to another, then, means one thing emphasizes the qualities of another, makes another stand out more strongly.  That is how we use Yin as a foil to the Yang of summer:

They have rolled
Out from the leafy shade–
The hot melons.

Kyorai wrote that.  We can see it does what we have just talked about; it combines the Yin of the shade and leaves and the watery melons with the heat characteristic of summer.  We feel the heat even more, seeing the Yin, watery melons that have grown hot in the intense sunlight, and the leafy shade from which they have rolled.

There is also another way of emphasing the heat — by “pouring it on,” that is, by increasing the extreme of heat by using something that is in harmony with, rather than contrasting with it.  This is using harmony of “like” things rather than harmony of contrasting things.  Hyōka wrote:

There’s a wife
And children in my house;
The heat!

The activity and wants and chatter of the children, the wife with her remarks and tasks and complaints, all combine in the hot little house to make the heat even more intense for the man, who feels that if he were alone, things would somehow seem cooler.  It is this sense of “crowding” when one wants space and coolness that is in harmony with the heat of summer.  That is why, for example, a mass of buzzing flies on a hot day would also be in harmony with the summer heat, making it even more irritating.

An extreme may be found even in the intense light of summer, as in this verse by Kyorai:

Stones and trees
Are glaring bright —
The heat!

That reminds me of a beach I once visited in the height of summer, and the light reflected off water and sand was so intense one had to squint.

Summer, then, gives us an opportunity to work with extremes, with Yang modified only slightly to greatly by the addition of this or that Yin element.  That does not, however, mean that all summer hokku must be harsh.  Summer has its harshness, but its pleasantness also.

Here is a summer verse by Kitō which nonetheless is heavy with Yin:

Little fish
Carried backwards;
The clear water.

Looking into the flowing clear water on a summer’s day, we see the tiny fish, tails wriggling, being pulled slowly downstream in the current up which they are facing.   The predominant element here is the Yin of the water, but we feel the summer in its clearness and in the wriggling of the fish.

Summer too has its more “Yin” days and its more “Yang” days.  Everything is relative, and it is the wonderful changes wrought by these differences in proportion that make things all the more interesting.

And so we return to our original premise:  All hokku are seasonal hokku.  At base, each verse is about a season.  So summer hokku should express the summer in some way.  And they should do it through sensation, through touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and seeing.

We must remember always to keep our hokku simple, our sensations direct.  Deal in real things, with water and stones and wind and flies and leaves; omit thoughts and abstractions and commentary, and do not try to write “poems.”  Instead, our goal in hokku is to express the season through sensation — through sensory experience — and if we succeed in doing that, the poetry will take place inside us, instead of on the page.

That is how hokku works.


“Old” readers here will quickly notice the change in appearance of this site.  I hope it may aid eyes wearied by the computer screen.

With this change of “look” and of season, I want to take a few moments for a general review of this site and its subject matter for new readers.

First, of course, this is a site for instruction in how to write the hokku — that remarkably condensed form of brief verse, set in the context of Nature and the seasons — that flourished before the 20th century cast it aside as inappropriate to the speed and goals and materialism of “modern” life — as though life could somehow exist outside Nature and the changing seasons.

As in the past, I shall continue to explain, through example, how the hokku is written in English, and what its aesthetics, so different from what we in the West know as “poetry,” are.  A diligent reader here will over time pick up the essential foundations for the practice of writing hokku, and if these basic elements are applied to actually taking up the verse form for one’s self, anyone with reasonable skill and innate taste should be able not only to write passable hokku, but occasionally quite good hokku.  Most important in this regard is understanding the spirit and the aesthetic behind hokku, and that is something one cultivates and develops over time through immersion in the subject and continued practice.

Beyond that, I often discuss here what is more commonly regarded as poetry in the English and other languages, verses that have kept (or should have kept) their appeal for one reason or another.  And I add to those excerpts from prose that often — sometimes unexpectedly — prove poetic in themselves.

I approach poetry here on an unaccustomed path, one in which it relates directly to daily life and to the kind of spirituality one finds in hokku — a spirituality in which the self of the writer and of the reader disappears in that which is written about.  And as Giacomo Leopardi wrote in his poem L’Infinito, “The Infinite,”

Così tra questa immensità s’annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.

Thus through this immensity my thought is drowned;
and shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea.



I was remiss in not posting a hokku for Vesākha, the remembrance of the Birth, the Enlightenment Nibbana (Nirvana) and the Passing Away (Parinibbana) of the Buddha.

Vesākha takes place at the time of the full moon in May.

In hokku it is generally best not to be too overtly religious or “preachy,” so this verse by Chora fits quite well:

A mountain temple;
No one comes to venerate
The Nibbana picture.

It is an isolated temple in the hills, too far for people — who are or think they are busy in any case — to come and make their devotions before the picture of the Buddha’s passing — his final entry into Nibbana.

It reminds me a little of Memorial Day, when so many people think they have better things to do than to pay respects to the memory of their relatives who have passed on.

Nonetheless, in regard to the hokku, the Buddha is still the Buddha, recognized or not, with or without pilgrims.  It reminds one of the ancient saying,

Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.

“Called or not called, the god will be there.”



It is time to ease into summer hokku.

As a kind of introduction, here is one of the most evocative excerpts in English literature, from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, filled with transience, the sense that all things are ephemeral and passing and slip like water through our attempts to grasp them.  One must read it slowly and savor the words:

I have been here before,’ I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as is given us once or twice in a life-time, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

That day, too, I had come not knowing my destination. It was Eights Week. Oxford — submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in — Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days — such as that day — when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.

Originally, Waugh had written, “exhaled the soft vapours of a thousand years of learning,” but his emendation of the line evokes precisely the spirit one finds in such a place, where seemingly the young never grow old.  But they do, as the rest of the book informs us.

I have combined both the original and later emended versions in this excerpt.

And now for summer hokku.



When this verse by Issa was written it was an autumn hokku.  In the United States, however, it is a verse for the end of May — for Memorial Day, which used to be called “Decoration Day”:

There is no improving on Blyth’s translation, even though he reversed the order of the original:

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

Because the dog is old, he is in harmony with the graves of people of the past.  And again because he is old, he has been to this cemetery before, and knows the way.  It shows us too how the dog is part of the family — and so is related, we may say, to those whose graves are being visited.

Presented (in America) as a spring verse, this hokku would also have a harmony of opposites — the freshness of the end of the month of May, but with it old remembrance of things and people past — and a memorial visit to their graves.



R. H. Blyth recognized even in his day that the hokku had fallen on hard times.  He speaks with favor of Bashō, of Buson, of Issa, and even speaks of the “objective dryness yet pregnancy of Shiki” (who began haiku as distinct from hokku), but he speaks also of  “the decadence of all later writers” (of haiku).

So much for the experimentation and change that came after Shiki in haiku — the experimentation and change that is also characteristic of modern haiku in English, which has continued, though in another language, the decadence of verse after Shiki.

Blyth tells us that Bashō’s “Way” can “hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it.”  Certainly I have found no one in the modern haiku movement on that path.

In speaking of what came after hokku and the conservative haiku of Shiki that was often indistinguishable from hokku, Blyth says quite honestly and bluntly,

…I feel that very little would be lost if all the haiku of modern times were tacitly forgotten.”

I feel precisely the same about modern haiku in English and other European languages.  One would like to erase all the mistakes and misperceptions and misunderstandings and foolishness foisted on the English-speaking public by the modern haiku community in the entire second half of the 20th century, a period which unfortunately set the stage for the abysmal kinds of verse written today as “haiku,” a period in which the genuine hokku and its aesthetics were seemingly deliberately obscured by the Western founders of modern haiku, who, not understanding the real hokku, simply chose to re-make it  as they wished it to be, then foisted the result on the naïve general public. 

Blyth tells us precisely what he thinks of this abandonment of the Way of Bashō:

Its disuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings.”

Blyth summarized his two-volume History of Haiku by saying,

Haiku since Shiki [that is, since about the turn of the 20th century] has been, like the world itself, in a state of confusion.

That confusion is abundantly evident on modern haiku sites.  One need only read the advice given by the “poets” there to novice writers, and one quickly sees that they really have not the slightest idea what they are doing or why, but in any case the best one can say of the deplorable results is that they are mercifully brief excuses for verse.  The “learning” and “teaching” of “haiku” on such sites is simply a classic illustration of the blind leading the blind.

Everyone in modern haiku makes up his or her own mind as to what constitutes a haiku and how to write it.  Blyth foresaw that decades ago, because the attitude already existed in his time:

The confusion of our modern times seems greater than ever before because people speak by themselves only, not by humanity.

It is the “Me” Period in which we live, not just the “Me Generation.”  And nothing so exemplifies modern haiku as this confused and rootless emphasis on “me,” on the individual as “poet,” on the necessity for constant change in verse, the same kind of constant change demanded by the short attention span of a two-year-old child.

I have watched the low rise of the modern haiku and its near-immediate devolution over many decades, and I see no trace of hope for the arising of anything worthwhile within it at present.  Almost without exception, those who practice it are devoid of an inherent sense of poetry (paradoxically, because those who write “haiku” today seem more than ever obsessively concerned about being perceived as “poets.” and as writing “poetry”).

I can say with Blyth that very little would be lost if all the haiku and haiku Internet sites and fora and journals of modern times were tacitly forgotten.  Given how little they are noticed by the general public in any case, their absence would likely pass without comment, and modern haiku could go into the dustbin of history, forgotten and unmourned.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

If any one has any doubts about my attitude toward modern haiku, I think this brief posting should dispel them.  

I want to remind everyone that I do not teach or practice or advocate modern haiku; I do not belong to any “haiku” group of any kind; and I have nothing whatsoever to do with modern haiku, aside from deploring its accompanying nonsense and mediocrity and triviality, and how its self-made pundits have actively contributed to the obscurity and near disappearance of the real hokku as practiced from its beginnings to the time of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.



When I began teaching hokku on the Internet many long years ago, at first I had crowds of people flocking into my classes.  They came largely from the modern haiku community.  Unfortunately, however, most of them really did not want to learn hokku.  Instead, they wanted to present a few of their verses and be told that what they were already writing was great.

It wasn’t great.  And it wasn’t hokku.  And when I told them that, they promptly lost interest and left, often with a few choice words about “tyranny” and how “You cannot tell ME how to write.”

Paradoxically, they were correct.  I could not tell them how to write, simply because they had not come to learn, and so would not listen.  Instead they wanted instant success and praise, and they did not want to have to spend time learning the principles and techniques and aesthetics of the hokku.   So they quickly went back to modern haiku, where those who know nothing whatsoever about writing hokku or even legitimate haiku will quickly find someone who will praise their awkward and mediocre verses.

The whole edifice of modern haiku is virtually based on this system of unlearned beginners who are too proud to learn how to write, and cannot bear being students rather than immediate “poets.”  And no matter how deplorable the verses written by such people, they will always find others who write equally deplorable verses and who will, with unfailing bad taste, be there to praise and encourage one on to further depths of mediocrity.  They have an unspoken agreement among them:  “I’ll say you are a poet if you’ll say I am.”

To speak of learning to write modern haiku is really an oxymoron.  Most people just pick up ideas here and there, from this book or that Internet site, and then go on to write as they please.  Really, what else can one do in a community where there is no common definition of what haiku is or how to write it?

What happens is that people end up writing little brief verses that have little or nothing to do with hokku, and also little or nothing to do with what Shiki originally intended haiku to be.

But the one saving grace in all this for such individuals is that the modern haiku community enables anyone, no matter how unskilled and unprepared, to write verses and have them immediately accepted by others in the community.  After all, if no one can say for certain what a haiku is or how to write it, that makes the individual the arbiter, so a haiku becomes whatever any given individual declares “haiku” to be.  That is how deplorably degenerate the modern haiku community on the Internet and in print has become.

When I talk plainly like this, those in modern haiku often think I somehow want to “convert” them to writing hokku.  Not at all.  I think people who are satisfied with modern haiku are very poor candidates for hokku, and I have found from my teaching that in fact that generally proves to be the case.  They are so full of their own notions, so full of the desire to be seen as “poets” by others, so irritated when their mediocre verses are subjected to legitimate scrutiny, that it would be impossible for them to really learn hokku until they change their attitude toward themselves and toward the world.

That is why I am not really interested in students from modern haiku.  I already know what they are like, and they do not make good students of hokku.  In spite of this, many of them regularly read this site for “tips’ to apply to their haiku, though I repeatedly caution against mixing the two forms of verse.  But they don’t listen.

That is their choice.  I have no interest in contributing to their confusion.  Instead, I prefer to teach those who really want to learn hokku, and though their numbers are fewer, I have always preferred quality to quantity.

As for modern haiku, it is even worse now than it was decades ago.  As Shakespeare wrote, “‘Tis an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.”



We just looked at a verse for the time when spring is nearing its end:

Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Today, by contrast, we shall look at a verse on the other side of the seasonal divide:

Clouds appear,
Yet no rain falls;
The heat!

In the first verse we still feel the gentleness and abundance of spring, when the forces of Yang are growing, but softened by the Yin of the rain.  But in high summer we come to the time when Yang predominates, and it manifests as heat and dryness.  That second verse is by Kōkyō, and he gives us a sense of the harshness of Yang when unmitigated by Yin, just as in midwinter we feel the harshness of the cold Yin unmitigated by the warmth of Yang.

Both heat and cold are extremes, and though they make for unpleasantness and discomfort, they also give us effective hokku because these extremes of heat and cold create strong sensations — sensory experiences — and sensory experience is the basis of hokku.

When using old hokku — which are really Japanese verses — in learning how to write modern hokku, we should generally forget completely that they are Japanese.   Instead we should apply them to the country where we live.

That is why when I read Kōkyō’s

Clouds appear,
Yet no rain falls;
The heat!

I always think of an American farmer looking upward at the hard blue sky in which a few wisps of whitish cloud appear, only to pass over and dissolve without a single drop of rain falling onto the parched soil.  And yes, I know it is a bit old-fashioned, but I always have the feeling of a windmill in the background, completely silent and still in the oppressive heat of a day without even the hint of a breeze.  That latter element by itself could be used in a summer hokku:

The windmill
Silent and unmoving;
The heat!

In such a verse we feel the heat in the stillness of the windmill, which, we could say, “reflects” the intense sensation of heat through its unmoving silence.  That is how hokku works; we combine things that work in harmony to express the season through sensory experience.

I hope readers here — at least long-time readers — are beginning to see how essentially simple hokku is.  If we abandon all the intellection, all our notions of what “poetry” should be, and just go for the basics of season and sensation — an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature — then we will be going in the right direction for hokku.  Anything else will take us away from hokku.

It is worth mentioning that the principles of hokku, unlike those of modern haiku, can be clearly expressed and taught.  And when one gets away from those principles, one is no longer writing hokku even if one happens to use the outward form of hokku for such a verse.  That clarity and simplicity in our understanding of hokku and its aesthetics and principles and techniques explains why we in hokku do not have the constant bickering and “intellectual” argument one finds among writers of other kinds of short verse.  We know what the aesthetics of hokku are, we know what the form is, we know how a hokku is written and what a hokku is to be written “about” — so that leaves nothing for pointless quibbles and mind games.

Why, then, is such abstract bickering endemic on modern haiku sites?  It is essentially because those in modern haiku view what they write as “poetry” and themselves as “poets” in the Western sense; they write so many different kinds of verse, all called haiku, that the modern haiku community as a whole has no overall unifying aesthetic or purpose.  And that underlying uncertainty and dissension becomes obvious in discussions on modern haiku by those within it.

That is another major difference between hokku and modern haiku.  I cannot help pondering this difference whenever I see the wordy, abstract quarreling that takes place on modern haiku sites.  It always makes me happy for the peace of hokku.



Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Beginning with the premise that a hokku is a sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the season, we can see that every hokku is really a verse about a season, whether written at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a season.  So though we do not use “titles” as such in hokku, nonetheless every hokku really has one of four “titles”:  Spring, Summer, Autumn (or Fall) and Winter.

We already know that a hokku is a sensory experience.  But how do we extract that experience from everything else that is happening at the time?  It is not difficult.  We look for the essentials of the experience.  In the hokku above, for example, there is the cloudburst, there is the warm rain, and there is the time of year — spring nearing its end.  That is all we require.

The interesting thing is that when we put these elements together, they have a sense of significance far beyond what each would have individually.  Let’s look again:

Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Everything here is in harmony.  The rain is a part of spring, but its warmth tells us that spring is soon to give way to heat of summer, when the warmth will increase and the rain will diminish or be absent.  So each element by itself, or even two of the elements together, is not sufficient to give us the whole picture.  It takes the combination of all to be effective.

We must, however, know when to stop.  We could add more of what is happening at the time, but in this case more would be less — the weight of detail would become too much, and would detract from the simplicity and directness of the experience.  That is why hokku are very brief.  Hokku, essentially, are just the fewest words necessary to convey a “whole” experience without detracting from that whole or adding unnecessary elements to it.

If one ponders this and puts it into application in writing verses, one will readily advance in writing hokku.  A hokku is not just a verse that happens to be brief.  There is a reason.  Nor is it just a verse that happens to be divided into two parts.  There is also a reason for that.  Make it shorter, make it longer, and it loses both ways.



A hokku is an experience of Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of a season. Everything else about hokku — the two parts, the punctuation and capitalization, the techniques — exist simply to convey that experience with clarity and simplicity and effectiveness.

Because it is an experience, hokku generally omits thoughts and commentaries about an experience, preferring the experience itself, with no frills or ornamentation.

Looked at this way, hokku is the most austere of verse forms.  It is like the best of Shaker furniture, designed for a purpose, with all that is extraneous omitted.

The job of the writer of hokku, then, is just to convey such an experience to the reader without “getting in the way” of the experience.  That means there is no room for preaching or moralizing, or for “souping up” or decorating a verse.  The best writer of hokku is one who is not noticed at all, leaving only the experience.

That is why I have always de-emphasized the notion of the writer of hokku as “poet,” which is a completely unnecessary and misleading title.  The writer of hokku is just someone who allows Nature to speak through him.  That is only possible when the writer gets out of the way, giving up all pretensions to being a “poet” or “poetic.’

That is why if you want to make a name for yourself in the literary world or on the Internet, you should write other kinds of verse.  Hokku is only for those who take up the path of humility.  It is a kind of contemplative verse, meaning it is verse that takes away thoughts and ego and leaves one only with the pure essence of a thing or experience.

Spring rain;
Between the trees is seen
A path to the sea

Otsuji’s verse shows the poverty and simplicity of hokku.  It is only when one is willing to become that simple that one can take up the practice of hokku.  If one has greater aspirations in verse, one should not even bother with the hokku.  Hokku is really a verse form fitting for hermits and monastics and ascetics, people who are done with all the nonsense of the world and who just want to get directly at

“That dearest freshness deep down things”

as Gerard Manley Hopkins so aptly put it.



Shiki, the “founder” of haiku as separate from hokku, wrote a verse that has (at least) two possible interpretations:

The first is as a hokku would be written:

A tub of indigo
Poured out;
The waters of spring.

Seen this way, someone involved in dyeing cloth has dumped out a tubful of indigo dye.  The dark, greenish liquid runs into and tinges the little rivulets and pools of flowing, springtime water a deeper hue, now that the frozen winter has passed (objects dyed in indigo, by the way, do not turn the deep “indigo” blue until some time after they are removed from the dye liquid).

The second way of understanding this verse is not at all hokku-like, because it makes it a metaphor.  Blyth has altered the verse slightly in his translation, making the “tub” a barrel and the “waters of spring” a river:

A barrel of indigo,
Poured out and flowing:
The spring river.

Seen thus, Shiki’s verse is no longer hokku.  Instead it is a metaphor used more as simile.  The river of spring looks like a barrel of dark, greenish indigo poured out and flowing.  This is the same technique used in the popular old poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor….

Both ways of reading Shiki’s verse are poetry in some sense, but only the first is the poetry of hokku.

In the first, we deal with the real world, with a poured-out tub of indigo running into and tinting the waters of spring.  In the second we are in the world of fantasy, where a river is no longer a river but a giant barrel of indigo poured out and flowing.  Those who do not know how indigo dye functions are even likely to visualize the liquid flowing from the barrel as deep blue, when actually it is greenish and only turns blue in items dyed with it that are exposed to air for some time — a chemical process.

Hokku does not use the second method because it takes us away from reality and into fantasy.  It mixes two images in our minds, and the mind must jump back and forth between them.  Usually the “fantasy” image wins our attention.

That does not mean the second does not create a vivid image and is not poetry in a conventional sense.  But it does mean that the “poetry” of the second verse is not the poetry of the first, which deals with the “real world” and does not mix the real world with poetic fantasy.

That is one of the distinctions between hokku and other kinds of verse.  Hokku prefers the “thing itself” to metaphor or simile that alters and ultimately detracts from the thing, no matter how conventionally poetic the result in the latter case.



Newcomers here often wonder why I use the word “hokku” for the small “Nature” verses I often discuss.  I use that word because it is the very word that has been used to describe them for over 300 years.  It is the word used by Bashō and Gyōdai, Taigi, and Buson, and all the other writers up to the time near the end of the 19th century when a journalist named Shiki began calling what he wrote “haiku” instead, though many of his verses were still essentially hokku in all but name.

As a result, over time a lot of people began speaking of those earlier, preceding centuries of old hokku as “haiku” too.  But I do not do that, and there are very good reasons.  First, as I have already said, it is not the “real” name of the verse, not what the writers of these verses themselves called them.  But even more important, after Shiki the “haiku” began to be written in so many different ways that it grew more and more unlike the hokku.  Today the word “haiku” is just a foggy and fuzzy umbrella term used to describe a great number of kinds of brief verse.  It has become so vague as to be nearly meaningless, and it certainly does not clearly or accurately describe the kind of verses written in the centuries before Shiki, nor does it describe the hokku we write in that old tradition today.

I believe that in order to teach something, one must know precisely what one is teaching.  One must be able to describe and explain it so the student will understand.  That is why I use the historically correct term hokku to apply to the kind of verse I teach and discuss.  It is the same word that was used by all who wrote it, and I can think of no good reason to change that.  I have seen what happens when people do try to change it, and the result is just hopeless confusion.

Nonetheless, everyone knows that there is a lot of new brief verse out there that is called “haiku.”  I always tell people that hokku is NOT haiku, and historically that is quite accurate.  But more important, hokku has its own standards and principles and aesthetics.  These have been largely forgotten or abandoned by most people who write haiku.  For many of these people, haiku is just a modern brief poem about the length of a hokku, but without most or all the characteristics of a hokku.  Often a modern haiku cannot be distinguished in any way from other short poems of roughly the same length that people do not call or consider to be haiku.

To avoid all that confusion, I just keep to the original, correct term.  That saves a lot of bother for everyone.  Fortunately, hokku is also the term still used by scholars when they want to be technically correct.  So even they know that using “haiku” when what is really meant is “hokku” can be confusing.

My attitude toward modern haiku is that it began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku by Western writers who mistakenly thought the hokku was like Western poetry, just shorter.  That is why a lot of modern haiku can hardly be distinguished from other short poems that are not haiku.  Some people actually prefer this “hybrid” kind of verse, and if they do that is fine.  But I do object when they try to convince people that what they write is in the same tradition as the old hokku writers, or when they try to convince people to call hokku “haiku.”  That is simply adopting confusion instead of clarity.  Here I only teach hokku.

Of course many people who write experimental kinds of modern haiku consider the hokku, without any good reason, outdated. They think that verse forms must always be changed and transformed and turned into something else to be any good.  But I think that is a foolish notion.  If something works well at what it is supposed to do, there is no reason to change it.  And change just for the sake of change is pointless.

Of course the way we write hokku today is not exactly how the old writers did it, because they wrote in Japanese and we write in English.  But we still follow their old techniques, their old aesthetics, and we still look to Nature and the changing seasons as the focus of our verse, just as they did.  That is why we can speak of a continuity between the old hokku and new hokku.

Learning hokku is more difficult than learning haiku because one cannot just make up one’s own rules.  There are certain guidelines we should follow, or else a verse will not be a real hokku.  But once we learn the guidelines and techniques and principles, then we can begin to write with real freedom, because we will have absorbed the spirit behind all the guidelines that is the real essence of the hokku.



Shiki (the “founder” of haiku as different from hokku) wrote a verse that is really a hokku in structure and effect:

A butterfly;
The pilgrim’s child
Lags behind.

Like old hokku, this demands an intuitive leap by the reader.  One must instantly recognize why these particular elements have been combined.

The parent is one of those pious Buddhist ladies who is off on a walking pilgrimage with others from shrine to shrine, and she has brought her child on her journey.  But along the path there is a butterfly, and the child lags behind, absorbed in its appearance and its fluttering.

Given the flexibility of the Japanese language,  we can make the butterflies many, and we can even multiply the number of children.  Number is not specified in the original.  But in English we have to choose, because English is a more precise language.

It is pleasant to think of the child among a group of spring butterflies, but it is also pleasant to think of it being held by the presence of only one.

If all writers of modern haiku had followed the example of such a verse, modern haiku would not be in its present chaotic state.  But of course then they would really be writing hokku.



When a writer of hokku writes about himself or herself, he does so as one would if writing about something else — as one would write about a tree, or a hawk circling in the sky.

Baishitsu wrote:

te ni toreba   haya niko-niko to    uri-hina
Hand in taking  soon smiling to sale-doll

Picking it up
And already smiling;
The doll for sale.

This is one of those verses that gives a quite different picture in the West than in Japan.  The doll the writer is holding is nothing like a “Western” doll, not a baby for little girls to play with.  Instead it is a formally-dressed little adult who, along with other similar dolls, will be displayed on shelves or a special stand during the Japanese celebration called “Hina Matsuri,”  “The Doll Festival.”

Some of these old “dolls” — which are really handmade figures and not playthings — were genuine works of art, and a traditional Japanese looking at one would be flooded with memories of childhood and sisters and all such things.  The Hina Matsuri was a girls’ festival, and came in March; the boy’s festival, with which carp were associated, came in early May.

Note that nothing is said in the verse of all the applied associations, which is in keeping with how hokku works.  We do not tell the reader how or why to respond to a verse.  The reader just reads it and responds.

Of course in describing such a verse to English-language readers, we have to load it down with explanation, which is unfortunate but necessary.  Otherwise we would likely think it a verse written by a woman or possibly a somewhat feminine man.

Then too, without all this added explanation one would have no idea that this is a spring verse.  Of course if written in English, such a hokku would be marked with the season in which it was written.

In any case, the dates of both these festivals have now passed us by, and in only a short while we shall be making the transition from spring hokku to summer hokku.



The practice of hokku is a lifelong process of learning.  This is true whether one is a student or teacher, because even the teacher is also a lifelong student.

Today I got a valuable insight into one reason why some people misunderstand and reject the notion of a connection between hokku and “Zen,” something I usually just call the inherent connection between hokku and spirituality.

This particular category of misperception lies in thinking that the writers of old hokku consciously intended to transmit an experience of “enlightenment” —  that their intention was to pass such a “Zen” experience on to the reader, much as a student of traditional Zen is given a koan — a paradoxical word problem — by a Zen teacher in order to lead the student to enlightenment.

The truth is that such a conscious intent was unlikely to have been held by the writers of old hokku.  And the fact is that hokku does not transmit the same level or quality of enlightenment that one achieves through Buddhist practice.

What one does find in hokku is a lesser analog to that greater enlightenment, a “little enlightenment” that is both momentary and transitory, a temporary removal of the boundary between self and other.  And the fact is that in the greater number of cases, this transmission of the “little enlightenment” experience happened not because of any conscious intent on the part of the writer of hokku, but rather because that writer worked from a culture that provided him (or her) with the unconscious “paradoxical, non-egoistic, universal, democratic basis of Mahayana Buddhism,” as R. H. Blyth rightly puts it.  Because hokku and the other contemplative arts were steeped in this unconscious aesthetic like fishes in water, it happened that the hokku — which manifested this aesthetic in a condensed and concentrated form — was and still is remarkably capable of permitting and transmitting this “little enlightenment.”

We cannot assume it was the conscious intent of the writer.  Not all writers of old hokku had a direct connection with the Zen sect, but all had this unconscious cultural background, just as Americans have a shared cultural background that is also largely unconscious but quite perceptible to people of other nations as something distinctively American.

But that was old hokku.  It is no longer true of Japanese culture as a whole, and of course this spiritual approach to verse is something quite unfamiliar to most in the West.  That is why in talking about the intimate relationship between spirituality and hokku, we must now speak of it quite openly and plainly when teaching hokku today — which was something generally not done or necessary in the old days of hokku — otherwise the crucial part of the hokku aesthetic — which is precisely this spiritual background — will be missing, and without it, it is impossible to understand or read or write hokku with any degree of perception.



Because it is so important to understanding hokku, here is a repeat of an earlier posting:

I have never been an admirer of Confucius, yet one can say of the teaching of hokku what Confucius said:

“The Master said, “Do you think, my disciples, that I have any concealments?  I conceal nothing from you.  There is nothing which I do that is not shown to you, my disciples; that is my way.” (Analects 7:23)

That does not mean a teacher demands nothing of the student:

“The Master said, “I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself.  When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.” (Analects 7:8)

Well, unlike Confucius, I present one corner of the subject, and when the student cannot produce the other three from his or her own resources, I explain even further, and I repeat the lesson over and over, because it is initially very difficult for Westerners to grasp how completely different hokku is from what they are accustomed to think of as poetry.  Those in modern haiku, for example, have never understood the difference, which is why haiku has devolved into just another kind of short-form modern verse in the West, becoming simply free verse divided into three lines.

One could say that the method of learning hokku is in these words:

“The Master said, “Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;— this is knowledge.” (Analects 2:17)

We can say clearly and plainly, as did R. H. Blyth, what hokku is.  It is not a poem, it is not literature.  Instead, “it is a way of returning to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature.”

Here Blyth, like Confucius, clearly shows us one corner, and we are to supply the other three.  But Blyth demanded a great deal of Western readers, and for the most part they failed him, unable to supply the other three corners — and the result was modern haiku.

Quite simply and clearly, what Blyth meant was that hokku is nothing like what we think of when we think of poetry.  To even call it “poetry” is to mislead, because it obscures and distorts hokku with mistaken presuppositions.

We are accustomed to making a distinction between inner and outer, between the thing seen “out there” in the world and the thoughts about the thing in the mind.  But in hokku the thing out there is the thing in the mind, if we only let the mind reflect it like a bright mirror, not obscuring it with all our thoughts and commentaries.

A clear and flawless mirror reflects without adding anything.  The mind that is obscured with thoughts will reflect the thing clothed and distorted by those thoughts, remaking the thing “in our own image.”  So in hokku it is vitally important to distinguish between what we see in Nature and our thoughts and ideas about what we see in Nature.

That is why Blyth tells us that we must not obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words and thoughts.  “Things must speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear what the poets have said about them.”

That is the great distinction between hokku and modern haiku.  Modern haiku has become inseparably attached to “what the poets [meaning the writers of modern haiku themselves] have said about them.”  In haiku (in contrast to hokku), the “poet” is the most important thing, which is why those in haiku are so remarkably attached to the individual’s whim in writing, the inviolable sanctity of the will of the POET, which one is tempted to write in grand Gothic Blackletter type.

In hokku, by contrast, there are no poets.  The writer is simply the mirror that reflects Nature.  It is the job of the writer to keep the mirror wiped clean of the dust of thought and self-will.  The writer of hokku does not block the speaking of Nature with his or her own voice.  Instead, one simply lets Nature speak through the writer.

This is not some kind of verbal hocus-pocus or spacey, New-Age nonsense.  It is exactly how hokku works.

When we read the words of Mokudō,

The spring wind;
A sound of water running
Through the barley.

–where is the writer?  Where is the reader?  Both have disappeared.  There is only the spring wind, only the sound of water running through the barley field.  The truth is revealed for all to see, as Blyth says:

“Each thing is preaching the Law incessantly, but this Law is not something different from the thing itself.”

Quite simply, hokku “is the revealing of this preaching by presenting us with the thing devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration…”

That is precisely what Mokudō does.  He presents us with the thing (the spring wind, the sound of water running through the barley) “devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration.”

There is no poet Mokudō.  There is only the thing simultaneously both outside and inside the mind, the bright mirror mind that reflects without adding or distorting.

Modern haiku has never understood this because it is too attached to being a “poet” and to “writing poetry.”  But hokku, as Blyth told us plainly and truly, is not poetry; it is not literature.  Instead, it is “the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

In this lies the great difference between hokku and modern haiku.  In hokku we do not even use the term “poet” in talking about ourselves and we do not use the word “poem” to describe hokku.  Hokku is simply the writer getting “himself” out of the way so that Nature may speak.  When we add our own thoughts and commentary, we drown out the voice of Nature.  That is why in hokku we just present the thing as it is, unobscured by our thoughts.

Hokku, then, is a remarkably humble form of verse.  We do not take on the pride of being “poets” and writing “poetry.”  When we write “poetry,” the writer as “POET” stands in the way of the thing.  In hokku the writer disappears so that the thing is revealed just as it is, with nothing obscuring it.

It is very important to understand these things, because without such understanding one simply will be unable to read or to write hokku.



It is difficult to write hokku while living in a big city.  The reason is that to build a city, natural life is removed — trees and grasses, bushes and weeds, soil and streams and all the creatures that live in them.  Cities tend to be the Dead World — the world of asphalt and concrete and plastic and metal and glass.

Hokku, however, are about the Living World — forests and pools, meadows and hillsides, leaves and flowers.

One of the most significant differences between hokku and modern haiku is that modern haiku (speaking in general terms, for it has many divisions) allows one to write verses about such things as toasters and TV sets, sports stadiums and skyscrapers.  These are parts of the Dead World.  Hokku does not do that, because hokku reminds us that we are not apart from Nature, though cities may give us the unhealthy illusion that we are.

I recently saw a program in which American school children were asked to identify some of the most common vegetables — things like tomatoes and potatoes and broccoli.  They could not do so.  I was shocked that people were being brought up so removed from reality.  I remember the son of a friend who could not tell if a potato grew on a tree or a bush or in the ground.  People are growing up today knowing only that vegetables — if they even see them whole at all — come from shelves in a supermarket.

I frequently mention the movie The Emerald Forest, which aptly speaks of the people of modern civilization as the Termite People, because they eat away the forest and the living things, gradually turning them into the Dead World.  We see that has already happened and is still happening to forests all over the world.  People are the cause of the present extinction of many forms of natural life.

That is why hokku never abandons its focus on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature.  Hokku is a voice of reason and sense in a world that thinks it is all right to drill ocean wells and chance polluting the seas and coastlines, because it is important to the endless consumption of goods that is daily urged on modern humans, or to create nuclear waste toxic for millennia to generate electricity for all the wasted energy used by cities.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of living in a big city is the glare of artificial light all night long, glare that covers the land seen from space and blots out the stars in the night sky.

Focusing on the Dead World, writing verses about the Dead World, is like that — it covers over and makes people forget the Living World out of which humans grew, and which they are still in the process of destroying.  There is a point at which what used to be called progress simply becomes wanton destruction.  There is abundant evidence that point has been reached.  And one of the worst signs of the times is the number of people who are willing to despoil the natural world for a luxurious lifestyle, not thinking what will become of things in a generation, or two, or eight — the world that will be left to generations unborn.

Hokku is a small thing, and certainly will not save the world.  But it does turn our thoughts and our concerns in the right direction.



One of the major influences on the writers of hokku was the old collection of the “Three Hundred Tang Poems.”  These were the famous classics of the Chinese Tang Dynasty that were to Japanese writers what college anthologies of poetry are to us.

There are a number of translations of the Tang anthology, some of them online.  Here is verse from the anthology by Witter Bynner, translating Jia Dao:

When I questioned your pupil, under a pine tree,
“My teacher,” he answered, “went for herbs,
But toward which quarter of the mountain,
How can I tell, through all these clouds?”

That has the genuine spirit of hokku though it is obviously not hokku.  The reason is that such verses are among the roots of hokku.  Jia Dao’s poem obviously focuses on “Nature and humans as a part of Nature,” which is exactly what we want in hokku.

My point in mentioning it here is to emphasize that hokku is not the only short verse form that may have the spirit of hokku behind it, which is why I refer to the whole range of such poetry — whether old or new — as “contemplative” verse, meaning verses having their origins in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, verse which deal, as does hokku, with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, and have behind them a deep spirituality.

Readers may have noticed that in the past few postings I have moved toward discussing a wider range of verse forms than just the three-line hokku.  I have done that to encourage readers not to abandon an experience of Nature just because it has too much content for a hokku.  One can write hokku-like verse in not only in three lines, but also in four or five, and perhaps even more, depending on the experience.  One just has to keep in mind the basic aesthetics of the hokku, aesthetics common also to ink painting, flower arranging, and landscape gardening in Japan.

Writers of hokku are free to write in any number of lines necessary to adequately express an experience.  That does not change the hokku.  It is still three lines.  But it does give us the option of using longer verse forms without abandoning the essential aesthetics of the hokku, without abandoning the hokku spirit.  And that is why I include all these other forms here, along with the hokku, as part of the wider practice of contemplative verse.

Old hokku had its wider practice of haikai, which included linked verse and journaling, etc.  Similarly, the practice of contemplative verse includes not only the hokku but also longer, aesthetically-related verse forms.

So whether we write an experience as a hokku in three lines, or in four or five-line verse forms, we can still keep the hokku aesthetic, the “spirit of hokku” that is also the spirit of contemplative verse in general.

That does not, of course, mean there is no difference between a hokku and verses written in more lines.  Hokku demands the ultimate of poverty, and the most care in selection.  To explain what I mean by that, here is a repeat of an article I wrote earlier:

Hokku is verse composed from the raw material of Nature and the seasons.  It may begin with an experience or a memory, but ultimately it all comes from Nature and time.  So writing a hokku is simply a matter of careful selection.

In 1877 a young man named George Willard Schultz felt himself drawn from Missouri to the West.  He boarded a steamboat and ended up in the Rockies among the Blackfoot people.  Many years later, looking back from the vantage point of age, he began his story with these words:

“Wide, brown plains, distant, slender, flat-topped buttes; still more distant giant mountains, blue-sided, sharp-peaked, snow capped; odor of sage and smoke of camp fire; thunder of ten thousand buffalo hoofs over the hard, dry ground; long-drawn, melancholy howl of wolves breaking the silence of night, how I loved you all!” (My Life as and Indian, 1907).

Things and experiences — sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch — these are the elements that comprise hokku.  And except for his last five words, that is what Willard gives us here.  But what he gives us is in its entirety too rich for hokku, which turns from wealth of impressions to poverty, so that each aspect of Nature may be felt and appreciated individually — for itself — and not just for what it contributes to the whole.

A school teacher knows this instinctively.  Her little class of squirming boys and girls is not important as a whole, but as individuals — for the spirit and character of each boy and each girl, the hopes and abilities and skills and drawbacks of each.  Any teacher who tries to teach “the child” and not individual children is committing a crime against Nature.

We can see, then, that while hokku sees Nature as a whole, it does not make use of Nature in that fashion.  Hokku is not generalities but particulars.  So out of the paragraph of  George Schultz, the writer will take just one or two things, for example,

“…long-drawn, melancholy howl of wolves breaking the silence of night….”

That gives us a subject.  But in hokku a subject alone is not enough.  Everything exists not only in the wider context of Nature, but also in the context of time and change, which we find expressed in hokku first through the season.  So an experience by itself is not a full experience until it is realized in the context of the season.

The result might be a hokku like this,

Winter silence;
The long-drawn howls
Of wolves.

Or perhaps

The long cry
Of a lone wolf;
The winter moon.


Wolves howling
All together;
The snowy night.

The last is actually an old hokku by Bunson.

Often people ask me about writing hokku while living in the midst of a big city.  It can be done — one can look for Nature virtually poking up through cracks in the sidewalk — but in general the result will not compare with what one can write from actual experience from the heart of Nature — from mountains, fields and forests, from streams and waterfalls and lakes, from reeds and huckleberry bushes and giant trees.  So the worst environment for hokku is a big city.  Writing it there really takes work, unless one happens to have a good back yard or a large park.  Next best is a small town, perhaps a little place with a river flowing through it, lots of trees, lots of gardens.  But of course best of all is the Great Wild, where man is not the center but the periphery.

The solution — for those who live in a city and want to write hokku — is to realize that to express Nature, one must experience Nature.  If one spends all one’s time in a city apartment, there is not going to be much raw material.  So if Nature does not find you, you must go to Nature, or else take up some other kind of verse that does not have as its focus Nature and the seasons.  But if you do that, you will lose the opportunity to realize just how much a part of Nature you are, the opportunity of returning to it and experiencing it, just as Schultz felt the call to the West in 1877.



Someone recently kindly asked me to participate in an online group project to translate — or at least present Englished versions of — all the hokku of Bashō.  I declined for a number of reasons, among them the fact that it is stretching it a bit to say that even 20% of the approximately 1,000 verses attributed to Bashō are either worthwhile or transfer well from culture to culture.

But another reason I could have given is that some of Bashō’s hokku are so obscure in the originals that they defy definite translation, like this autumn verse:

Kumo to hedatsu   tomo ka ya kari no  ikiwakare
Cloud as separate  friend ka ya wild-geese  ‘s live-parting

It is devilishly difficult to understand precisely how Bashō intended this to be read.   Does it mean, as David Landis Barnhill has it (I have changed his format, not his words),

Like clouds drifting apart,
A wild goose separates, for now,
From his friend.

Or does it mean, as Oseko presents it,

Friend beyond the clouds!
Just as wild geese
Part company.

Might it mean

Clouds will separate
The two friends, after migrating
Wild goose’s departure.

…as Makoto Ueda has it,

Or perhaps does it mean, as Russian translator  Dmitri Smirnov gives it,

Облака разделят  нас друг с другом навсегда,  словно двух гусей.

Which I would translate as:

Clouds separate us,
Friend from friend forever,
Like two wild geese.

Should it begin,

Like clouds…

or perhaps

Just as clouds…

Making a simile (which most hokku do not use, as I have pointed out previously), or does the apparent simile apply not to the clouds, but rather to the wild geese, as others would have it?

This is the kind of stew into which one jumps when one takes on translating the entire body of Bashō’s verse.  Really, life is too short to spend it on this kind of thing, particularly when the result will inevitably be inconclusive and colored by the personal aesthetics of the translator.

Of course such problems have not deterred others from giving it a try, yet even David Landis Barnhill stops at translating about 725 of the near 1,000 extant hokku.  Toshiharu Oseko earlier went farther, coming out with two large hardcover volumes of Bashō translations, with extensive notes.  And they are not the only ones to take on the task — just the most useful authors so far, in my view.

So how would I translate the verse in question?  First, I would just openly admit its obscurity. and then I would probably come up with some “amended” version like this:

Friends separate
Like passing clouds;
Wild geese leaving.

Quite honestly, it makes a terrible hokku, because it does not do what a hokku should do, which is to avoid simile and too much comparison.  I do not think any translation I have seen of this verse of Bashō makes a good hokku.  And of course what Bashō really intended remains unclear even to native Japanese readers, so what you just read in my “translation” is a mixture of Bashō and Coomler.

The reason for difficulty in this verse, no doubt, is that Bashō was mixing images from old Chinese poetry  — parting friends, clouds, and wild geese — and he poured the result into the very tiny mold of hokku, and in this case it just did not work.  Instead he should have written it in another and more expansive verse form, leaving hokku for what works well in hokku.

Blyth once said with affectionate hyperbole that a bad verse of Bashō is better than the best of lesser writers of hokku, but I do not find that to be literally the case.  Many of Bashō’s verses make poor models for modern hokku, but we need not dwell on those when we have the best of his hokku given us in the translations of Blyth.  As students of hokku it is best to concentrate on those that are good, using the mediocre and the bad only as examples of what to avoid.

And for those who do want to dwell on those numerous, lesser attempts of Bashō, there is always the large selection offered in paperback by David Landis Barnhill and the two very useful volumes (outrageously expensive now that they are out of print) of Toshiharu Oseko.  If you are budget-minded, go with David Landis Barnhill.  If you are interested in “popular” personal interpretations by someone who is a lover of poetry though not a real translator, you might like to peruse Jane Reichhold’s “complete” versions of Bashō’s verses, but keep in mind that it will be hard to distinguish what is Reichhold with her “modern haiku” aesthetics from what is legitimately Bashō.  Those looking for deeper insight and accuracy will prefer Barnhill and Oseko.

As for me, I will leave the translating of the complete works of Bashō to others.  My view is that modern hokku is legitimately based on the best of all writers of hokku prior to the beginning of the 20th century, and there is no need to spend much time on inferior or confusing old examples that contribute little or nothing to the building of modern hokku in English and other languages.

As for which of the many translations of the verse given above is really the best, one can only say that the best verse as a poem is that of  Dmitri Smirnov, followed by that of Barnhill.  But in doing so, one must separate what is good as a poem from what is good as a hokku.  Something may be good as poetry yet bad as hokku.



Bashō wrote a very spring-like verse almost too pretty for hokku:

From the four directions,
Cherry blossoms come blowing in;
Lake Nio.

We could be a bit less literal and make it:

From all directions,
Cherry blossoms come blowing;
Lake Nio.

Most of us have not the slightest idea what Lake Nio, also called Lake Biwa, looked or looks like.  So we naturally do what we do with all hokku — we automatically come up with an internal image of a lake, with cherry blossoms blowing into it from all directions.  For each of us the image will be slightly different, depending on our past experience of lakes.  And that is the way with all hokku.  Each reader has a different experience depending on his or her internal stock of images.

If we were to examine this verse structurally, we could say that the setting is Lake Nio; the subject is cherry blossoms, and the action is “come blowing from all directions.”

We could even present the verse that straightforward way, putting the setting last:

Cherry blossoms
Come blowing from all directions;
Lake Nio.



I repeatedly remind readers that hokku is very simple.  Here is a good example — a verse by Shōha:

Furuki to ni    kage utsuriyuku   tsubame kana
Old  door on   shadow changing swallow kana

In essence, this is saying

On the old door,
A changing shadow —
The swallow.

But we could make it better in English like this:

On the old door,
A constantly-changing shadow —
The swallow.

Or even better,

On the old door,
A flitting shadow —
The swallow.

Or we could say,

On the old door,
A shadow flits to and fro —
The swallow.

In the West this is likely to be a weathered barn door, and the constantly-changing shadow is that of a barn swallow flitting to and fro with remarkable speed and agility.  The focus, however, is not on the swallow; it is on the old door and the shadow that flits across its surface repeatedly.

On this we see both the sense of time and age that is appropriate to hokku and the sense of transience in the constantly-changing shadow.  It is the combination of these two elements — the fresh and active and the old and passive — that gives this hokku its interest.  Regular readers here will recognize this as just another manifestation of the principles of Yin (passive) and Yang (active) that we find so often in hokku, used in so many ways.



Not long ago I introduced two short-verse “alternative” forms.  Both were intended for those times when a hokku is too small in space for what needs to be said.

We find such an example in English translations of one of Buson’s spring verses about the willow.  Blyth gives it as:

Unwilling to throw it away,
I stuck the willow branch in the ground;
The sound of water.

This is really too long for hokku in English, though Blyth conveys the meaning of the Japanese rather well.  Let’s suppose for a moment that we are the writers of this verse, that we are writing it in English and we can see its content is too extensive for a hokku.  The next step would be to go to a longer “short verse” form, in this case the walden, which is the English-language aesthetic equivalent of “hokku-ized” waka:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

As you can see, that has a short/long/short/long/long form.  It is  kind of extended hokku, and it is really remarkably handy.  Just because something fits into a hokku in Japanese does not mean it will do so in English.  Similarly, many experiences take just too many English words to fit the hokku form, and in those cases we may also use the walden (or the slightly briefer loren).

Let’s look again at Buson’s verse in walden form:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

The writer has been walking along, holding a long branch of a willow that has newly leafed out in the fresh green of spring.  Suddenly he realizes that it is not something to keep, but what is he to do with it?  He feels it not right to just discard it, but instead pushes it deep into the spring earth.  Some time later he hears the sound of rain falling.

With this verse Buson too is part of the spring, the greening willow, the rooting and growing of things.  The willow and its watery nature and ease of sprouting in moist soil are in harmony with the sound of falling rain.



Buson the artist-writer was also a classicist heavily influenced by Chinese poetry.  Put very simply, Chinese poetry in general has a feeling of great distances, while Japanese poetry more often concentrates on the small and near.  Nonetheless, one sometimes finds the “vast space” of Chinese poetry in the very small envelope of a hokku.  One example with a very obvious Chinese influence is this verse by Buson:

Kimi yuku ya   yanagi midori ni   michi nagashi
You go ya willow  green at      road long

Rather literally it is:

You are going;
In the green of the willows,
The long road.

It is a “departure” verse, for which we find many prototypes in Chinese poetry.  Essentially it is an expression of one’s feelings when a dear one is going away.  It is quite obvious, though, that those feelings are expressed in ways other than we would usually do it in the West.  Here they are expressed through Nature rather than through “bare emotion.”

We could also translate Buson’s verse more freely:

Your leaving;
The green willow road
Is long.

Two old friends are saying goodbye in spring.  The willows that line the road are bright green with new leaves, and the road itself stretches on and on into unimaginable distance.

Inevitably one is reminded of Hans Bethge’s loose rendering of Wang Wei in Die Chinesische FlöteThe Chinese Flute, as used in Gustav Mahler’s “Song of the Earth”:

Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk
Des Abschieds dar. Er fragte ihn, wohin
Er führe und auch warum es müßte sein.
Er sprach, seine Stimme war umflort: Du, mein Freund,
Mir war auf dieser Welt das Glück nicht hold!
Wohin ich geh? Ich geh, ich wandre in die Berge.
Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.
Ich wandle nach der Heimat, meiner Stätte.
Ich werde niemals in die Ferne schweifen.
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt
Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig… ewig…


He dismounted and handed him the drink of parting;
He asked him where he was going and why it must be.
He replied, his voice was veiled;
“You, my friend — Fortune was not kind to me
In this world.
Where do I go?  I go — I wander in the mountains,
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander to my homeland, my place.
No more shall I travel in far regions.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!
The dear earth all and everywhere
Blooms forth, and grows green anew.
All and everywhere the blue light
In the distance —
Eternal… Eternal….


Grown Old

The woman Seifu wrote:

Doll faces;
I have grown old.

The interest here is in harmony of opposites.  The faces of the dolls look still the same age, but the writer, by contrast, finds herself inevitably grown old — a matter beyond her control.

Blyth has translated the last two lines a bit more personally as

Though I never intended to,
I have grown old.

It is true.  One does not intend it, but it happens.  That demonstrates, as Carl Jung said, that we are not the master in our own house.  These humans who think they are Lords of the Earth are the servants of Time.



Buson wrote:

A Korean ship
Passes without stopping;
The haze.

It is virtually impossible to recognize in English translation, but this verse is an example of the romantic tendency in Buson’s hokku — romantic in the sense of “evoking an idealized past or exotic adventurousness.”  When Buson wrote of a Korean ship, what he meant was a particular kind of ship that long before his day brought exotic goods from the mainland to Japan.  It is as though we were to translate the first line as  “a caravel” or “a galleon,” which in English would immediately set the verse in the past rather than the present day:

A Spanish galleon
Passes without stopping;
The haze.

So Buson was doing something romantic artists like to do, which is to create an exotic mood, and to do that, he has us see an ancient Korean vessel approaching the shore, yet continuing on into the haze of spring instead of stopping.  Essentially he is bringing the ship out of the haze of the imagination to evoke an artistic atmosphere of the “past,” then sending it back into the haze to let us know it is not a part of the “real” world.

This hokku reminds me very much of a painting I once saw of a boy reading at night in his room, and all around him — out of the haze of his imagination — appear pirates and a parrot, palm trees and all the images called forth by the reading of Stevenson’s Treasure Island in the young mind.

From my point of view this is all very well in novels and in some kinds of verse, but I do not think it should be the purpose of hokku.  Hokku should not be the artificial creations of the imagination, the world remolded nearer to the heart’s desire, but rather it should be the world seen clearly and without the coloring of the imagination — a reflection in a mirror wiped clean.

That is a fundamental difference between hokku as a contemplative path and hokku as a creative exercise of the imagination.  In the history of the form there has always been a certain kind of contradiction and conflict between these two approaches.  We find it even in the verses of Bashō, who after all was a businessman of sorts, making his living from teaching a rather complicated system of verse to the merchants and tradesmen of his day.  So not all he wrote is gold by any means, in fact the majority of Bashō’s verses could be obliterated without doing the slightest damage to hokku.  Those we see printed in anthologies tend to be among the few that showed him at his best.

In fact we could say that a certain amount of artificiality was built into the practice of haikai, because as a kind of group-oriented poetic game, the composition of a linked sequence of verses (of which the hokku was the first) meant coming up with new links on the spot, and that opens it to the possibility of a large element of artificiality.

It is also one of the reasons why I do not lament the passing of this approach.  I have always preferred a hokku that takes us closer to the real world of Nature rather than to the world remade through our imaginations.  Our task as humans is not to immerse ourselves in illusions, but rather to see the world more and more clearly.  And hokku, in my view, should be practiced in the same way.  Otherwise it only contributes to our delusions instead of helping to free us from them.



Kyorai, one of Bashō’s students, wrote:

Hito aze wa    shibashi naki yamu    kawazu kana
One path wa for-a-while  cries silent   frogs kana

An aze is specifically a path through rice paddies.

When Blyth translated this, he changed the verse, and also — in my view — its meaning:

One field of frogs
Croaks for a time,
And then is silent.

There is nothing wrong with that except that one loses the intrinsic meaning, and without the explanation one wonders why a field is full of frogs.  Blyth tells the reader in an added comment that “actually it is ‘one footpath between the fields'” of frogs.  But of course one cannot have

One footpath between the fields;

as a first line of a hokku.  It is just too long.

Moreover, we cannot possibly get everything in the Japanese version into the space of a hokku in English.   That means we need a verse form slightly longer than the hokku:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

Two days ago I introduced an English variant on the old Japanese waka that I call the “walden,” which has essentially the form of the old waka but the aesthetic content of the hokku.  The walden form is:


Today I introduce a second variant, a third writing option, for those times when the space of a hokku (as in this case) is too short, but a walden is too long.  I’m going to call it a “loren” after one of my favorite writers, Loren Eiseley.  As you can see from the example, the structure of a loren is:


If we were to put the three verse types in old “Japanese” measure, they would look like this:

Hokku:  5-7-5
Loren:    5-7-5-7-5
Walden  5-7-5-7-7

NOW we have the full tools for dealing with virtually any case that may arise, using a short verse form.  We have the hokku for the shortest, the loren when a hokku is just a bit too short, and the walden when the loren is not quite long enough.  And of course all three follow the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.

But back to Kyorai’s verse, which we have expressed in a loren because the hokku is too short in English:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

The rice paddies are filled with the croaking of frogs.  But as Kyorai proceeds down a footpath between the paddies, his presence is sensed and suddenly the frogs all go silent.

Having said all that, there is a way to translate Kyorai’s verse in hokku form:

A paddy path;
Suddenly the frogs
Go silent.

But of course the real point of this posting is to introduce another option for those cases that are virtually impossible to condense into the short hokku.



Buson wrote a spring verse that is very tricky to put into English:

Hana ni kurete   waga ie tōki   no-michi kana
Blossoms at darkened   my home far   field-road kana

Blyth, who often preferred to convey the overall meaning of a verse rather than its absolutely literal meaning, gave this as:

Among the blossoms, it grows late,
And I am far from home —
This path over the moor.

That does well what Blyth wanted it to do, but it is not at all what we would do when composing a hokku in English.  It is too unbalanced, too long.  The problem is that literally, what Buson is saying is something like

It grows dark on the blossoms;
My home is far;
The field road.

But that too is unusably awkward in English.

We could try

The blossoms dim,
My home is far;
The road through the fields.

But essentially, Buson has presented us with two parallel lines and a third, and that makes translation into English hokku form problematic.  We need not feel troubled by it, however, because Buson has really packed too much into the small space for a hokku.  The information contained in the verse requires a wider format, either the waka or four lines of “Chinese” verse.

I would translate it into my own version of the waka.  But first I must explain a bit:

A waka (literally “Japanese song” or “Japanese verse”)  put into English form comes out as three lines of the same length as a hokku.  But it ends with two additional lines that are the length of the longest (the middle) line of the “hokku-like” part.  Where hokku avoids overt “poetry,” the waka does not.  And the waka, which does not shy away from romance, tears, longing for the loved one, etc. etc. etc., also tends to use a very elevated and elegant language, using only what we might call “high” subjects though presented in the context of Nature.  It is all moonlight and singing birds and cherry blossoms.  No toads, no pumpkins.

We may say that while our tradition of hokku took a middle path in old Japan, neither falling into mere puns and wordplay and witticism nor using only elevated subjects, the waka always remained on a very elevated level.  Subjects often found in hokku would be considered too “common” or “low” for it.

Quite honestly, that has always been why I have never had much interest in writing the waka.  I have no interest in its deliberate romanticism and its “ivory tower” attitude toward the ordinary things of life.  In waka everything must be conventionally beautiful and elegant and aristocratic.  Waka fails to see that there is also beauty in the ordinary and plain, and for me that is a fatal flaw.

What I have always wanted to do, then, is to make up for the flaw by writing a kind of “hokku-fied” waka, verse combining the high and low, which of course I could not continue to call waka because its aesthetics would be different — like those of the hokku.  My kind of waka, then, would be the waka form minus its complexities, and having the “contemplative” aesthetics of the hokku.

So here I give Buson’s overly-packed (for a hokku) verse rewritten in my longer, hokku-fied waka form, which I hereby name the “walden” in honor of Henry David Thoreau:

With evening,
The cherry blossoms
Grow dark;
Through empty fields,
The long road home.

Buson has lingered too long admiring the blossoms, and as they darken, he turns his eyes to the long road through the fields and begins his homeward journey.

If any of you would like to try the “walden” as well, just keep in mind that it has the same aesthetics as the hokku, and the same avoidances.  Its subject matter is Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and it omits romance, sex, violence — things that disturb the mind in general, as well as “technology.”

It is simply an extended hokku in its aesthetics.  And every now and then, one may need an extended hokku.  Outwardly it looks like a waka but it is not a waka; nor is it what is today called a tanka.  It is a walden.




Readers may have noticed that even though I teach the old “haikai” kind of hokku, I nonetheless have very little to say about the practice of linked verse (renga).  That is because it has never interested me.  In fact there are very, very few whom it does still interest.

My personal opinion — and it is only that — is that hokku today are better written individually or in the context of a journal than in the old style of linked verse.  One might better work in a hokku series, joining a number of related hokku together.  It is much simpler, and for Westerners, I think, much more rewarding and appropriate.

There are ways of writing linked verse in English, though I advocate none that are complicated.  That enables one to still compose “group” verse, as the old writers of hokku enjoyed doing, but nonetheless I do not think that Westerners find such group verse particularly appropriate to their psychology.  We enjoy it about as little as we enjoy group authorship of a novel.  So my conclusion from all this is that if you like writing hokku with others in a linked verse form, feel free to do so; and if you do not, then you may write hokku in the context of a daily journal, or a travel journal, or as a series of related verses, or as individual verses.  That liberality enables us to keep up the wider practice of haikai, though it is by no means the complex and time-consuming matter it was in the time of Bashō.  But keep in mind that teaching complex linked verse to merchants and tradesmen, etc., was how Bashō made his living.  One would be hard put to make a living at such an occupation today!  My feeling is that it is probably just as well, because it avoids commercializing hokku — and not commercializing is more appropriate to the spiritual nature of the kind of hokku I teach.

My advice to the individual writer is to keep the traditions of the old hokku that are important to the preservation of its character, but when it comes to its context — the wider practice of haikai — fit that to your lifestyle and personal preferences.  If you are a social person, you may wish it to be a group activity; if you are more a solitary, you will prefer a more “one-person” context and practice.

It is worth keeping in mind that the old and complex linked verse has virtually died out.  Almost no one reads it today.  But people all over the world still read the hokku of Onitsura and Bashō and all the other related writers up to the end of the 19th century.

Onitsura once wrote of what is temporary in verse and what is ageless.  Hokku has something in it that is ageless.  That does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  In fact hokku today appeals only to those who realize the importance of Nature in our lives — that we HAVE no lives without Nature, of which we are a part.  But human cultures rise and fall.  Nature remains, however we may abuse it to our own detriment.



One of the great differences between hokku and modern haiku is found in subject matter.  In modern haiku one finds verses about all the things that hokku, for one reason or another, rejected.  I say “for one reason or another,” but actually there are two principal reasons.

First, hokku avoids topics that tend to disturb or obsess the mind.  That of course means romance and sex and violence.  The omission of such things comes from the spiritual origins of hokku in Mahayana Buddhism.   If we think of hokku as one of the contemplative arts — which it is — then it becomes readily obvious why these things are not used.

Second, hokku avoids modern technology.  It is very common for those in the modern haiku community to think that this is because such technology did not exist for the greater part of the history of hokku, but that is incorrect.  Hokku avoids technology because the real subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  Technology tends to take us away from Nature, and the farther we go in that direction, the farther from hokku we are.

That is why those in modern haiku who say “If Bashō were alive today he would write verses about texting and iPods and jets and freeways” (I cannot tell you how often I have heard that in one form or another) are simply exhibiting their ignorance of the fundamental aesthetics of the hokku.

It is not hard to see when and why technology began to be admitted to Japanese verse.  It happened near the end of the 19th century.  We can blame it on Shiki, who nonetheless did hold to the traditional standards in theory — that a verse should not be just about technology.  Nonetheless some of Shiki’s verses go a bit too far in admitting technology, and haiku (not hokku) writers who came after him saw that as license to go all the way.  That is why in modern haiku one may find a verse about nothing more than an elevator opening and closing.  That is very far from hokku, but often characteristic of modern haiku.

A few days ago we looked at the last stanza of a poem by Edward Shanks (one of the “Georgian” poets of England) called “A Night-Piece.”  An earlier stanza in that verse exhibits the kind of transition in English verse that we find also when Shiki began writing borderline verses:

All’s quiet in the wood, but, far away,
Down the hillside and out across the plain,
Moves, with long trail of white that marks its way,
——The softly panting train.

We see the gently puffing steam engine moving across the valley far away, though we are standing surrounded by Nature.  Its puffing is only gentle because it is distant.  Shiki, however, brought it much too close when he wrote a verse about smoke from a passing train and then draws our attention to “the young leaves.”  This is really too much for hokku.  Technology is beginning to overwhelm Nature.

The general rule of thumb in hokku is that Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature must always be the chief focus of a verse.  We of course often find the presence of human artifacts in hokku, but they are generally “pre-Industrial Revolution” kinds of things, like pots and and kites and wagons, things that do not interfere with our perception of Nature.  To use anything else in hokku requires both skill and a thorough understanding of its aesthetics, and is generally best avoided by both beginning and advanced students.

We must not make the childish mistake of thinking in “either-or” terms.  “Either I must write about modern technology in hokku or I cannot write about it at all.”  Again we must keep in mind the adage, “the right tool for the right job.”  There are many kinds of verse in which one may freely write about modern technology.  Hokku just does not happen to be one of them, because it has, and has always had, an entirely different purpose.



Edward Richard Burton Shanks wrote a poem titled “A Night-Piece” in the “Georgian” period of English poetry (1910-1936) — a work a bit overlong that ends with these words:

Again . . . again! The faint sounds rise and fail.
So far the enchanted tree, the song so low . . .
A drowsy thrush? A waking nightingale?
——Silence. We do not know.

That is often the way of poetry.  It says too much.  It speaks when silence is more appropriate and more significant.  It does not know when and where to stop.

The most important part of the last stanza is this:

A drowsy thrush? A waking nightingale?

But then the poet spoils it all by saying

——Silence. We do not know.

Hokku, in one of its frequent patterns, does not make that mistake.  I am speaking of the “question” hokku, the essence of which is to ask a question that not only remains unanswered but should not and must not be answered.  That is because the whole point of a question hokku is the feeling one gets from not knowing, “The Unanswered Question,” as the American composer Charles Ives titled one of his works.

The question hokku avoids the finality of knowing.  Knowing ends a multitude of possibilities.

Bashō wrote one of the best-known question hokku:

Hana no kumo   kane wa ueno ka asakusa ka
Blossom ‘s cloud  bell wa Ueno ?  Asakusa ?

A cloud of blossoms;
Is the bell Ueno?
Is it Asakusa?

The first line “A cloud of blossoms” gives us the wider setting of the verse.  It is spring, and cherry blossoms are everywhere.  Through this cloud of blossoms comes the deep tone of a sounding bell.  Where does it come from?  One cannot tell.  Is it from a temple at Ueno?  Or one at Asakusa?

To tell us would spoil the verse completely, would ruin its point, which is just that feeling of not knowing.

We could take Shanks’ lines and make them into a proper hokku:

The distant wood;
A drowsy thrush?
A waking nightingale?

One does not, of course, need a question on each of two lines, as in Bashō and in our reworked Shanks.  One need only be sure that the question mark is placed so as to leave the reader with the unanswered question:

Let’s look at an out-of-season verse by Ōemaru:

Meeting the cow
I sold last year;
The autumn wind.

That verse also relies on the feeling it arouses in the reader.  But we can get another interesting feeling by making a question hokku of it:

Is that the cow
I sold last year?
The autumn wind.

Which one uses will depend on the feeling one wishes to convey.  Notice that we do not need to tell the reader what to feel.  He or she just feels it upon reading each of these verses.  That is the virtue of not saying too much, one of the many virtues of the hokku.



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:

Aomugi ya hibari ga agaru are sagaru
Green-barley ya skylark ga rising is descending

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 such 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.

Remember, however, that the hokku I translate here are not presented 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.

We can take today’s 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 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:

Kojima ni mo   hatake utsunari    naku hibari
Little-island on even field tilling  crying skylark

I would translate it 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.



The very old practice of using models to learn hokku is, as I have mentioned earlier, also a very good one.  One should not think of it as simplistic or elementary, because if offers the opportunity to fix these models in one’s head and to understand how hokku works structurally, and ultimately aesthetically.

When working with models, we may disregard our usual habit of only reading hokku that are in season.  You may recall that the exception to that habit is in hokku used for teaching and learning.  So one may use a model from any season for practice in any other season.

In model work, we need not pay attention to the Japanese version of a hokku.  The Japanese language is structurally very different than English.  When learning hokku in English, it is important to work from English models.

In the study of models, we quickly find that there are several types of common hokku.  By learning these different types, we expand our range.  Because it is so frequent and useful, I like to begin with the “standard” hokku.

A standard hokku consists of a setting, a subject, and an action, not always in that order.  Here is a standard hokku by Uejima Onitsura, whom we commonly know as just Onitsura:

A cool wind;
Filling the sky —
The sound of pines.

Working with such a model is simply a matter of changing the various elements in it and substituting others.  We can change one or two or all of them, and each will give a different result.  Some changes will be effective, some will not.  By doing this, we learn how to combine elements in hokku, and we also learn the overall structure.

Onitsura’s hokku consists of these elements:

A cool wind; (setting)
Filling the sky —  (action)
The sound of pines. (subject)

Here is how one begins to work with a model through changing elements:

The spring morning: (setting)
Filling the forest — (action)
The sound of birds.  (subject)

It is easy to see that we have substituted other elements in the same structure.  We can go on doing this, using a wide range of topics:

The morning sky;
Filling the meadows —
The gold of poppies

One can easily see that the possibilities are infinite, which is why there are great numbers of hokku just of the “standard” kind alone.  And that is only one of several kinds of hokku.

One must not think this method too basic.  It is remarkably useful, and it enables the diligent student to quickly learn the basic forms of hokku.  When one adds to this the knowledge of the aesthetics of hokku, it provides an excellent grounding in the writing of original verses.

Any of the good hokku in the archives of this site may be used as models.  The more one works with them, the more one will expand one’s knowledge.  A teacher can show how to work, but only the student can do the learning through repeated practice.

If anyone has questions about this or about anything else, feel free to ask me by clicking on the “comment” button at the end of this or any other article.  Your question will be seen only by me, and I will reply to your email address.



Those who have recently stumbled across my site might not understand what is happening here.  Some may think I am just presenting an archive of old hokku in new translations; others may think I am here to complain about modern haiku.

I do present old hokku here with my new translations; and I do bemoan what modern haiku did (and still continues to do, for the most part) to the old hokku tradition.  But my real purpose here is to teach hokku — to explain what it really is and how to write it.  I only talk about haiku now and then because to learn hokku, one must be able to distinguish it from haiku, which began much later and distorted the old hokku tradition.  And to learn hokku, one must correctly understand how old hokku were written, what their inherent aesthetics are, and the various techniques and principles employed.

I agree with Onitsura that the best way to learn hokku — and this is even more true of modern writers — is to imitate the models of one’s teacher.  I could just present my own verses and say, “do the same,” but I further believe that the best way to maintain continuity in hokku between the old tradition and our new practice is by using all the best old hokku as models.  Thus we learn not only from Onitsura, but also from Bashō and Gyōdai and Taigi and Buson and the other writers when they were at their best.

There are certain overall principles and aesthetics that apply to all of these writers and more, even though some may have had their own particular tendencies in writing.

The verses I translate here — those I present favorably — are really models for students to use in writing their own contemporary hokku.  This learning from the models of a teacher is the old way to learn hokku, and as I teach it, it is also the modern way to learn hokku because it is a very good way, as Onitsura recognized some three hundred years ago.

In the past few weeks I have spent considerable time in explaining what went wrong at the end of the 19th century, and how modern haiku pushed hokku into near oblivion.  It is important to know all of that, but now it is time to concentrate again on what this site is really about — the transmission and learning of hokku.  If hokku is to survive at all, there must be new writers.  Otherwise the tradition will disappear.

This site, then, is a place where I not only share my pleasure in traditional hokku but also a place where I teach others how to write it and encourage them to do so.
I have been doing this a long time now — quite a few years.  But given the fact that even the name of hokku nearly disappeared into oblivion, along with the knowledge of how to practice it, one must be patient in bringing it back to life.

The revival of hokku is particularly difficult in our modern materialistic society, which tends to turn away from the chief subject matter of hokku — Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, not apart from it.  And few there are today who admire the poverty, simplicity, and spirituality of the old hokku.   Nonetheless it is to those few that I address what I write here.



There are two ways of looking at Masaoka Shiki (1869-1902):

Viewed historically, Shiki was the first “haiku” writer.  So “haiku” really began only with Shiki, near the end of the 19th century.  Everything before him was hokku, in the wider context of haikai.

Viewed technically, however,  Shiki was the last of the prominent writers of hokku; Shiki’s verse still followed the old hokku requirements of season and of length of phonetic units, and in fact most of them are indistinguishable in form and content from hokku.  Their peculiarities are due to Shiki’s own view of what verse should be, but that view in practice was still so conservative that if Shiki had been both the first and the last “haiku” writer, his verses would still be considered hokku, if sometimes a bit odd or flat.

Numbers of Shiki’s verses were negatively influenced by his chronic illness.  One feels on reading them that not only was the man sick, but those particular verses are sick as well.  Nonetheless, R. H. Blyth was able to say that even though Shiki’s personality is unattractive, “we are struck with the large number of excellent, perfect verses which he wrote.”  When he was good he was pleasantly good, and when he was bad, his verses seem ill or flat and two-dimensional.

From Shiki onward, the “haiku” he began went downhill.  So we can regard Shiki as either the last major writer of the hokku, or as the first writer of the haiku.  If seen as the latter, we must recognize that Shiki has little or nothing in common with what is called modern haiku in the West today.  Conservative modern Japanese haiku (which is still, for the time being, the preferred kind in Japan), is more closely related to Shiki through his student Kyōshi, whose verses were not as good on the whole as those of his teacher.

Blyth attributes Shiki’s failures and weaknesses to the fact that Shiki had no religion, that consequently we feel in him “some want of depth; the baby has been thrown out with the bath-water.”  There is indeed something very superficial in Shiki, and Blyth said correctly that “we feel something a little hard, superficial, unloving in him.”

As unattractive a personality as he may have been, quite a few of his hokku are tranquil and pleasant, and as readers here know, I often compare his better verses to the pleasant block prints of Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) and Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950).  If you are not familiar with their work, find some examples on the internet, and you will easily see the parallels with the verses of Shiki.

As an example of Shiki at his best, Blyth gives this verse (my translation here), which differs not one whit from earlier hokku:

Shima-jima ni   hi wo tomoshikeri    haru no umi
Island-island at  light wo have-been-lit   spring ‘s sea

On all the islands,
Lamps have been lit;
The spring sea.

This is an interesting mixture of elements, all having to do with spring and the increasing Yang energy that grows out of Yin.  We see that in the overall subject of the verse (spring) and in the lighting of the lamps in the mild darkness.  We see the shadowy islands in the evening sea, and the lights twinkling here and there upon them, near and far.

If all Shiki’s verses had been like this, we would perhaps see him differently.



Modern haiku is not hokku.   It is generally not even haiku.

We have seen that a hokku is a written thing-event in which an unspoken significance is perceived.  It involves Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, and it is set in the context of a season.

Raizan wrote:

Shirouo ya    sanagara ugoku     mizu no iro
Whitebait ya just-like  moves    water  ‘s color

The whitebait —
Just as though the color of water
Were moving.

Raizan got it exactly right; the translucent whitebait fish does look like the water itself has taken on a definite form and is swimming about.

If we compare that hokku with a “haiku” by Shiki, we see something interesting:

Nure-ashi de   suzume no ariku   rōka kana
Wet-feet with  sparrow ‘s  hopping verandah kana

With wet feet,
The sparrow hops
Along the porch.

What distinguishes the two verses?  Both are set in the spring.  Both involve a thing-event.  Yet one is a hokku, the other is called a “haiku.”

Both are really hokku in their aesthetics, but by Shiki calling his verse a “haiku” he automatically excluded it from the possibility of its being used –ever — as the first verse in a series of linked verses.  In this case, that is really the only difference.

We can see from this that for the most part, Shiki just continued to write hokku, but insisted on calling his hokku “haiku” because he did not care for the practice of linking verses and wanted to discourage that practice.

One can deduce correctly from this that in general, the “haiku” of Shiki were really just hokku under a different name.  Some are better, some worse, and there is a tendency in many to shallowness and mere illustration.  Nonetheless, if Shiki had not insisted on calling his verses “haiku,” generally no one would bat an eye if they were included in hokku anthologies.

One may also conclude from this that “haiku” has changed drastically from what it was in the work of Shiki.  Modern haiku often bears not the slightest resemblance to either hokku or to what Shiki practiced as haiku.  Instead, as I often repeat, it is a new verse form created in the West, primarily in the latter half of the 20th century, from misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku combined with Western notions of poetry and the whims of “recent” Western writers.



One who learns hokku learns to be free from poetry.

Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?  Isn’t a hokku a poem? The answer is that a hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.

This of course applies to hokku as I teach it.

If you stand on a rocky shore and look out at the sea, what you see is not poetry; what you see is a thing-event.  An event is something happening, and of course without a “thing” nothing happens.  So a bird flying is a thing-event; a bud on a branch is a thing-event.  The sun rising is a thing-event.  An old man sneezing is a thing-event.  A child burping is a thing-event.  Similarly, a hokku is not a poem as we usually think of a poem; instead it is a thing-event.

Buson wrote:

Haru no umi hinemosu notari notari kana
Spring ‘s sea  all-day     undulating undulating kana

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Where is the poetry in that?  It is just a statement of what is happening.

You may say it is a “poem” because it is divided into three lines, but by that definition the address on an envelope is poetry.  And of course if we present it like this,

The spring sea, rising and falling all day long.

— nothing has really changed.  So it is not simply the division into lines that makes poetry, in spite of the fact that the “beat” writer Gary Snyder made a name for himself by simply dividing prose into lines to make it appear superficially like poetry.  That is a common trick from the mid-20th century onward, deceiving many.

Nonetheless, when we look at the spring sea there is poetry in it, and R. H. Blyth tells us clearly and correctly why:

There is a poetry independent of rhyme and rhythm, of onomatopoeia and poetic brevity, of cadence and parallelism, of all form whatsoever.  It is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions, and lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  It is the seeing we do when a white butterfly flutters by us down the valley, never to return.” (Eastern Culture)

To summarize all of this quite simply, hokku is not what we ordinarily think of as poetry (so-called), but hokku lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  There we have it in a nutshell.

When we say, then, that hokku are not poems, not poetry, we are saying it so that we may distinguish it from all poetry so-called, by which we mean all that normally passes as poetry in English-language cultures.

What then, do we mean by poetry in hokku?  We mean simply a thing-event in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.

Blyth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”

That means poetry (as we are speaking of it in relation to hokku) is not something we add to a thing-event as one adds condiments to spice up a soup.  It is not a dash of metaphor, a thick slice of iambic pentameter, a pinch of alliteration.  Instead, poetry is something awakened by certain thing-events, and when we experience such a thing-event, we “automatically” perceive the poetry in it.  That is the poetical experience of hokku, and that is the entire point of hokku.  Without this poetry in a thing-event, hokku would not, could not exist.

We can say then of hokku what the German mystic Meister Eckhardt said of the Nativity:

Was nützt es mir, wenn Gott früher einmal in Bethlehem Mensch geworden ist, wenn er nicht in mir geboren wird?

“What good is it to me that God once become man in Bethlehem, if he is not born in me?”

That means, when applied to hokku, that the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.

That is why when Buson saw the sea of spring — when we read Buson’s verse that gives us only the sea of spring with nothing added — we experience that thing-event and poetry is born in us.  Yes, the poetry is in the event, but only when it is perceived by the person able to recognize the poetry, in which case the spring sea is born in that person, the thing-event takes place, and the poetry is felt.

We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader.  Without the reader the verse is just words on page.  But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.”

If you find that confusing, just remember this and you will grasp the essence of the matter:

Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader.

It is simply that when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

And that, in Blyth’s terms, is your “little enlightenment.”



I have never been an admirer of Confucius, yet one can say of the teaching of hokku what Confucius said:

“The Master said, “Do you think, my disciples, that I have any concealments?  I conceal nothing from you.  There is nothing which I do that is not shown to you, my disciples; that is my way.” (Analects 7:23)

That does not mean a teacher demands nothing of the student:

“The Master said, “I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself.  When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.” (Analects 7:8)

Well, unlike Confucius, I present one corner of the subject, and when the student cannot produce the other three from his or her own resources, I explain even further, and I repeat the lesson over and over, because it is initially very difficult for Westerners to grasp how completely different hokku is from what they are accustomed to think of as poetry.  Those in modern haiku, for example, have never understood the difference, which is why haiku has devolved into just another kind of short-form modern verse in the West, becoming simply free verse divided into three lines.

One could say that the method of learning hokku is in these words:

“The Master said, “Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;— this is knowledge.” (Analects 2:17)

We can say clearly and plainly, as did R. H. Blyth, what hokku is.  It is not a poem, it is not literature.  Instead, “it is a way of returning to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature.”

Here Blyth, like Confucius, clearly shows us one corner, and we are to supply the other three.  But Blyth demanded a great deal of Western readers, and for the most part they failed him, unable to supply the other three corners — and the result was modern haiku.

Quite simply and clearly, what Blyth meant was that hokku is nothing like what we think of when we think of poetry.  To even call it “poetry” is to mislead, because it obscures and distorts hokku with mistaken presuppositions.

We are accustomed to making a distinction between inner and outer, between the thing seen “out there” in the world and the thoughts about the thing in the mind.  But in hokku the thing out there is the thing in the mind, if we only let the mind reflect it like a bright mirror, not obscuring it with all our thoughts and commentaries.

A clear and flawless mirror reflects without adding anything.  The mind that is obscured with thoughts will reflect the thing clothed and distorted by those thoughts, remaking the thing “in our own image.”  So in hokku it is vitally important to distinguish between what we see in Nature and our thoughts and ideas about what we see in Nature.

That is why Blyth tells us that we must not obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words and thoughts.  “Things must speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear what the poets have said about them.”

That is the great distinction between hokku and modern haiku.  Modern haiku has become inseparably attached to “what the poets [meaning the writers of modern haiku themselves] have said about them.”  In haiku (in contrast to hokku), the “poet” is the most important thing, which is why those in haiku are so remarkably attached to the individual’s whim in writing, the inviolable sanctity of the will of the POET, which one is tempted to write in grand Gothic Blackletter type.

In hokku, by contrast, there are no poets.  The writer is simply the mirror that reflects Nature.  It is the job of the writer to keep the mirror wiped clean of the dust of thought and self-will.  The writer of hokku does not block the speaking of Nature with his or her own voice.  Instead, one simply lets Nature speak through the writer.

This is not some kind of verbal hocus-pocus or spacey, New-Age nonsense.  It is exactly how hokku works.

When we read the words of Mokudō,

The spring wind;
A sound of water running
Through the barley.

–where is the writer?  Where is the reader?  Both have disappeared.  There is only the spring wind, only the sound of water running through the barley field.  The truth is revealed for all to see, as Blyth says:

Each thing is preaching the Law incessantly, but this Law is not something different from the thing itself.”

Quite simply, hokku “is the revealing of this preaching by presenting us with the thing devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration...”

That is precisely what Mokudō does.  He presents us with the thing (the spring wind, the sound of water running through the barley) “devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration.”

There is no poet Mokudō.  There is only the thing simultaneously both outside and inside the mind, the bright mirror mind that reflects without adding or distorting.

Modern haiku has never understood this because it is too attached to being a “poet” and to “writing poetry.”  But hokku, as Blyth told us plainly and truly, is not poetry; it is not literature.  Instead, it is “the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

In this lies the great difference between hokku and modern haiku.  In hokku we do not even use the term “poet” in talking about ourselves and we do not use the word “poem” to describe hokku.  Hokku is simply the writer getting “himself” out of the way so that Nature may speak.  When we add our own thoughts and commentary, we drown out the voice of Nature.  That is why in hokku we just present the thing as it is, unobscured by our thoughts.

Hokku, then, is a remarkably humble form of verse.  We do not take on the pride of being “poets” and writing “poetry.”  When we write “poetry,” the writer as “POET” stands in the way of the thing.  In hokku the writer disappears so that the thing is revealed just as it is, with nothing obscuring it.

It is very important to understand these things, because without such understanding one simply will be unable to read or to write hokku.



I have always been very fond of the hokku of Onitsura, the other of the two “patriarchs” of our kind of hokku.  Onitsura’s verses have a very simple elegance, like that found in an old person who, however poor and mended his clothes, is always immaculately clean and mannered.  In Onitsura we do not find the kind of obsession with verse that we sometimes sense in Bashō, and it adds a quietness to them that is very pleasing:

Hana chitte   mata shizuka nari   Enjō-ji
Blossoms fallen  again quiet is     Enjō Temple

We can translate it as:

Blossoms fallen,
Again it is quiet;
Enjō Temple.

or as:

Quiet again,
With the blossoms all fallen;
Enjōji Temple.

The noisy, trampling crowds that came for the annual viewing of the cherry blossoms have departed.  With their leaving, everything has reverted to the stillness present before their coming.  It is a refreshing, peacefully pleasant quiet.

It has none of the dark and ghostly silence found in the last lines of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners“:

Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Those of you who pay attention to the Japanese transcriptions of the original verses that I sometimes give (and you need not pay them the slightest attention if you do not wish) may want to know that in words with a macron above a vowel — as in Enjō or Bashō, etc. — that vowel is to be pronounced twice as long. So the first is not simply Enjo, but rather En-jo-o, the second Ba-sho-o, not Basho.  It is not the difference between “long” and “short” vowels in English, but rather the amount of time taken to say the vowel, which is twice as long if the vowel has the macron.

I want to emphasize again, however, that one need not know a single Japanese word (except of course, hokku) to learn hokku, because we write in English here.  And of course how we write hokku in English is also applicable to other languages such as Spanish, German, Dutch, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, etc. etc. etc., which is probably why speakers of various languages read this site.



I was very amused by a comment in the Guardian by a fellow who attended a Quaker meeting:

“ sit there in silence. Five minutes goes by. You shift a bit in your seat. Another five minutes goes by. Did I say goes? These five minutes crawl by like drugged somnabulating slugs. Nothing happens at all…  Another five minutes passes. It is excruciating now.”  (

What this fellow sees as nothing happening is actually something happening, but because he is completely unfamiliar with the context, he is totally bewildered by all those people silently sitting and doing apparently nothing, and cannot recognize what is really taking place, which is something of deep significance.

It all reminds me so very much of how modern haiku enthusiasts react to hokku.  There is something happening in it, but they do not understand the aesthetic context.   Undeterred by that, they apply to it what they think should be happening in verse — and one of those things is metaphor.

If there is any verse to which modern haiku pundits might apply metaphor, surely it would be this summer verse by Bashō:

Takotsubo ya    hakanaki yume wo    natsu no tsuki

Octopus-pot ya fleeting dreams wo summer  ‘s moon

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.

The octopus finds a cozy, earthenware pot that looks to be a useful shelter.  But when dawn comes, the pot and octopus will be pulled from the water, and his life will be over.  The pot is a trap.

Those frantic to see metaphor in hokku will say the octopus pots are metaphors for human life.  But they will be wrong.  In hokku an octopus pot is an octopus pot. Human life is human life.  There is no need for metaphor, which actually detracts from what the writer of hokku intends.

Westerners are accustomed to overstatement, to endless analysis.  Hokku merely presents the reader with something happening in Nature.  The point of the hokku is in what is happening, just as the point of a Quaker meeting is in the gathered silence.  A Quaker needs no minister or priest standing at the end of the room sermonizing or ritualizing.  The silence, which seems to be “nothing,” is quite full in itself.  And the hokku needs neither metaphor nor simile — it too is quite sufficient in itself.

To grasp hokku, one must really abandon what one thinks one knows about poetry, all the baggage and explanation that goes with English literature.  The last thing one needs is to misapply all that baggage to something that neither requires nor is illumined by it.

Getting modern haiku enthusiasts to see this, however, is is remarkably difficult, because they come to hokku with expectations and notions that simply do not apply to it.  Very few are able to abandon those expectations and misapplied notions, to free their minds so they are able to at last perceive how very different hokku is from everything they have thought of up to this point as poetry.

Most in modern haiku do not even try, and are quite content to write free verse in three lines and label it haiku, never questioning how — or even if — it relates to all that was written by all the hokku writers prior to Shiki’s presentation of the “haiku” to Japan.

That is why I always tell students that to learn hokku, one should not even think of it as poetry.  By abandoning that context altogether, one is finally free to see hokku for what it really is:

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.



Cooks and craftsmen know that it is important to choose the right tool for the right job.  The same applies to verse.

In my years of teaching hokku, I commonly and often heard the complaint from haiku enthusiasts that hokku did not permit them to write about such things as their romantic relationships, or their attitude to a current war, or their cars or cell phones.  One phrase I heard so often that it seemed a mantra among them was, “If Bashō were alive today, he would write about these things.”

No, he would not.  How can I know that?  Because hokku is specifically about Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and to make it other than that would be to turn it into a quite different category of verse (i.e. “haiku”).  The root of the problem is that the would-be writers — the haiku enthusiasts — did not grasp or share the hokku aesthetic, and that is the reason for their dissatisfaction.

But the principle of using the right tool extends more widely than simply the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  Donald Keene gives an excellent example in his book World Within Walls: Japanese LIterature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867.  Kamo no Mabuchi, a waka writer of the 18th century, made a verse on the death of his mother, prefacing it with this:

When I was told that my mother had died I could hardly believe it was true; I had spent seven years away from her, able to see her ony in dreams.  But the person who informed me was in tears.  I had supposed our separation would last only a little while longer, and had long looked forward to spending her old age with her, going together to different places, living in one house.  But what a vain and sad world it proved to be.  What am I to do now?

His waka (my translation) is:

I hoped
That like wild geese
We’d gather —
But all in vain;
The great village of Yoshino.

As Keene points out, without the preface one would not be able to make head nor tail of the waka; but even more significant, there is more poetry in the prose preface than in the verse itself when divorced from the preface.

Mabuchi would have been wiser to have written in the wider format of Chinese verse (which Japanese sometimes did), giving the scope necessary to convey in verse what he tells us in his preface.

Bashō made a similar error, as R. H. Blyth points out, by trying to write as hokku what minimally required the somewhat wider format of waka:

The autumn wind;
Brush and fields —
Fuha Barrier.

How flat and spiritless it is, compared to the waka on which it was based:

No one dwells
At the Fuha Barrier;
Its wooden gables
Have fallen to ruin.
Only the autumn wind.

That is far superior to the weak soup of Bashō’s attempted hokku, and again, the reason is that Bashō chose the wrong tool for the job.

Hokku, as I often say, was never meant to be all things to all men.  It has its tasks and it performs them well.  But when one chooses a subject requiring more scope, one should write it in a more expansive form, whether that of waka or “Chinese” verse (but in English, of course), or in whatever format fits one’s needs.

Can you imagine Walt Whitman trying to put this into hokku form?

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d — and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

It would have been an exercise in futility.  And similarly, writing hokku does not mean one must write ONLY hokku.  Some subjects require more space, and for them one must select a format that is most appropriate to the task.

In doing so, one must not try to make hokku stretch and distort to fit whatever one wants to force into it.  Instead, use it for its proper purpose, and for other purposes do what a good cook or craftsman does — use other and more appropriate tools.



Hokku has deliberate limits on its subject matter, and one of those boundaries excludes what we loosely call “technology.”

As a result of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent great expansion in use of technology and consumption of fossil fuels, humans entered an Age of Illusion in which the misperception became common that Nature was little more than a vast repository of resources to be gathered and used however humans saw fit.  Humans saw themselves more and more as separate from — and in general superior to — Nature.

Hokku — and a life in keeping with hokku — reverses this trend.  One cannot write hokku without the realization that Nature gave birth to humans, and thus humans are a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the only realistic and healthy attitude.

It is also an antidote to the wrong thinking so prevalent in the world today — that the world was made for humans, that all of Nature “belongs” to humans to do with as they will.  And it is only by realizing how intimately connected with Nature we are that just possibly, humans might yet have a slim chance of averting a final environmental catastrophe brought on by decades of ignorance, arrogance, selfishness and greed.

So it is not simply a matter of aesthetics that hokku avoids technology and never abandons Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature as its inherent subject matter.  It is also a tiny counterbalance to the immensity of wrong thinking and wrong action in the world today.  By avoiding putting “technology” in our verse, we have to pay greater attention to Nature and how we relate to it, and if anything might save humans from destroying themselves, it would be that realization of our inseparability from the same Nature that humans have so raped, battered and abused.  In harming Nature we harm ourselves.

It is worth mentioning that even Shiki, who ultimately caused much trouble by his somewhat short-sighted, revisionist creation of the new “haiku” as an offshoot of hokku near the end of the 19th century, did not go as far in abandoning Nature as many in the modern haiku community have done.

What we call “technology” in hokku, Shiki called “artifacts of civilization,” and he wrote that most of them are “unpoetic” and thus difficult to use in poetry.  He said that those who supposed that his admonition to “write about new things” meant to write verse on such things as “trains and railways” were mistaken, but that if one does write about them, “one has no choice but to mention something poetic as well.”  If a verse contains an element of technology, Shiki felt, one had to counterbalance it — “make it more attractive” as he put it, by including such other elements as violets blooming by the railroad tracks or poppies dropping their petals after a train had passed (see Dawn to the West, Donald Keene, 1984, pg. 51).

Shiki’s admonition, though it seems overtly based more on his ideas of what was “beautiful” in verse than on anything more profound, nonetheless resembles somewhat the principle in hokku that even though technology is generally avoided, if rarely some aspect of it not too inharmonious with hokku is included, the “technological” element should not predominate, but should always be secondary to Nature.

Hokku may be the ONLY verse form in existence today that strictly limits its subject matter to the intimate connecction between Nature and humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  For that alone it should be valued and protected, and it should never be diluted by confusion with or admixture into the chaos of modern haiku, which in its fragmentation and endless bickering reflects the confused and blunderingly rootless state of modern society in general.



I have spoken before about the pervasive influence of Mahayana Buddhist spirituality — influenced by Daoism and a dash of Animism (via Shintō) — in old hokku.  Usually I just call it the “spirituality” of hokku, and some call it the influence of Zen in hokku, which indeed historically it was.

When we come to the verses of Issa, however, we see a variant influence.  It is still Mahayana, but with a difference; Issa was a follower of the Pure Land sect, the aspect of Japanese Buddhism — in fact a kind of “folk Buddhism” — that some see as most like Christianity.

Zen believed in relying on one’s own efforts.  Pure Land believed in relying on the “other,” the other being in this case the compassion of the Buddha Amitabha, called “Amida” in Japan, who in Pure Land tradition vowed to save all beings who sincerely call upon him.  In feeling, Pure Land is very different from Zen.  It is the “easy” way, which is no doubt why it became the most popular form of Buddhist practice in Japan.

Today Buddhism in Japan has degenerated to the point where temples are handed down in the families of married priests, and people seldom visit them at all, except on special occasions.  In a bizarre twist, Buddhism has become associated in the minds of the modern Japanese people with funerals, as the country becomes ever more materialistic.  Even in his day, R. H. Blyth lamented that the Japanese had abandoned their traditional culture.  How horrified he would be to see today’s technological Japan, and Buddhism in even greater decline there!

But back to Issa and his brand of Buddhist practice.

He wrote a series of six verses all on the same theme, which is the “Six Ways”  or “Six Paths” that one may take after death, standing for the six realms in which one may be reborn.  When Protestant Christians say they have been “reborn,” what they mean is not at all what a Buddhist means by the term.  In traditional Buddhism, when one dies, one’s kamma (karma in sanskrit) causes rebirth in one of several realms, either in a “hell,” or as a suffering ghost, or as an animal, a nature spirit, a human (the most favorable in Buddhist belief) or as a deva or “god.”  Each of these realms has its own characteristics.

One can see that in these verses Issa has a peculiar take on the various realms, seeing them not so much in other places as in this very world.  Keep in mind that this is not really what hokku is for, but Issa had his own personal quirks and his hokku reflect the kind of person he was.

Here are the “Six Ways”:

1.  HELL

Yūzuki ya   nabe no naka nite   naku tanishi
Evening-moon ya pot ‘s inside boiling  mud-snails

The evening moon;
Boiling in the pot —
Crying mud snails.

This verse reflects Issa’s awareness of lower forms of life, which permeates his verses.  Quite aware of suffering in his own life, he was aware of it also in the lives of “lesser” creatures. Isn’t it obvious that for many creatures, this world is Hell?

The next higher stage of rebirth is


Hana chiru ya   nomitaki mizu wo   tōgasumi
Blossoms fall ya drink-desire water wo  far-mist

Falling blossoms;
The water we thirst for —
In the far mists.

The realm of Hungry Ghosts is the realm of spirits whose tormenting desires cannot be satisfied.  They want to satisfy their hunger but cannot, to satisfy their thirst but are unable.  Here amid the falling cherry blossoms — which embody transience — the water for which the spirits desperately thirst is far off somewhere in the confused mists of the afterlife, always enticing them, always grieving them, always never quite attainable.


Chiru hana ni    butsu tomo hō tomo   shiranu kana
Falling blossoms in   Buddha even Law even know-not kana

In the falling blossoms,
They see neither the Buddha
Nor the Law.

Animals have not the perception of humans.  Men look at the falling cherry blossoms and are able to see the impermanence of life in their transience, and think of the Buddha and the Law — the Dhamma (Dharma in sanskrit) that will lead them out of suffering.  Animals are aware of none of that, and Issa feels for them.


Koegoe ni    hana no kokage no bakuchi kana
Voice-voice at   blossom ‘s shade ‘s gamblers kana

With arguing voices
In the shade of the blossoms —
The gamblers.

The Asura (Japanese Ashura or Shura) realm is the realm of temperamental, self-important and easy-to-anger creatures just below the human realm, a kind of touchy nature spirit.

Here Issa sees them as shouting and arguing as they gamble in the shade of the blooming cherry trees.  In spite of the beauty of the blossoms, the Asuras are too intent on their own “pushy” pursuits to notice.


Saku hana no naka ni   ugomeku shujō kana
Blooming blossoms ‘s among at  wriggling human-beings kana

The blooming flowers,
Wriggling humans.

Not a flattering picture.  Humans wiggle about, moving here and there, amid the blooming cherry trees.  One pictures a crowd of people viewing the blossoms, turning this way and that, but really going nowhere.

And finally, we come to the realm of the devas or gods:


Kasumu hi ya    sazo tennin no    gotaikutsu
Haze day ya surely heaven-person  ‘s tedium

The hazy day;
Even the devas
Must be bored.

It is a very quiet, hazy day in spring.  Nothing to do, nowhere to go, and the hours drag.  The lives of the devas in the heaven realms are unimaginably longer than those of humans.  If humans are so easily bored, what must such a day be like for the devas, Issa wonders.

One can readily see that there is both deadly seriousness and humor in this series of verses.  And like “Occasion” hokku, we can read them on two different levels.  On one level these things are happening in the various realms in which humans may be reborn.  On another level, all of these things are happening in this world.

1.  In this world creatures and humans suffer at the hands of others — Hell.
2.  In this world both animals and humans may ignore the transience of life — Animals.
3.  In this world human desires are endless — Hungry Ghosts.
4.  In this world people bluster and argue and fight to overcome — Asuras
5.  In this world humans waste their time, acting as though they will live forever — Humans
6.  In this world people are easily bored — Devas

Issa mixes them all up, seeing the Hells and the Heavens and all Six Realms interpenetrating this world.  As Omar Khayyam wrote in Fitzgerald’s translation, “I myself am Heaven and Hell.”

As is obvious, this kind of verse is not really “normal” hokku, and I only post it here so that readers may see some of the odd variations into which hokku was drawn historically.  Issa, for the most part, does not make a good model for hokku, but just as Pure Land Buddhism became the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, even so the quirky hokku of Issa — which are very human and often very psychological — became the most popular among the ordinary people of Japan.

As the old saying goes, De gustibus non disputandum est — there is no arguing about tastes.  We can, however, point out the differences between hokku put to these ends and the kind of hokku we practice, which from the Japanese perspective would be more “Zen” oriented than “Pure Land” oriented.



Now back to spring….

Rofu wrote an interesting verse set in the spring:

Ashiato wo    kani no ayashimu    shiohi kana
Foot-step wo crab ‘s suspicion     ebb-tide kana

If one wants a good, brief look at how very different Japanese hokku looked from English language hokku, this a good example.  Essentially and very literally, what this verse says is:

At the footstep, crab’s suspicion, ebb tide.

One would not suspect that of being anything remotely resembling verse, were it not for the fact that the original has the standard 5-7-5 phonetic units measure characteristic of Japanese verse, which relies in its traditional manifestations on combinations of lines of five or seven units.

In English, however, we must present it a bit differently:

The crab
Is suspicious of the footprint;
Ebb tide.

“Footprint” in the original, is ashi-ato, literally “foot-trace.”  We have already encountered the word ato in my discussion of Bashō’s “Summer grasses” hokku, where it referred to what remained behind.  Here what remains is an ashiato, a footprint.

The crab, scuttling along the sand at low tide, comes to this vast depression — something out of the ordinary, and therefore suspicious.  He pauses in uncertainty.

The whole point of this verse is that the reader becomes one with the suspicious crab.  We feel his hesitation and uncertainty on coming across the strange imprint in the sand.

We are accustomed to having animals and other creatures anthropomorphized, made to look and behave like humans.  Here the reader has the opportunity to go the other way — to see things from the crab point of view.

Verses about the ebb tide are traditionally spring verses in Japan.  The two best of such verses are this one and the one we have already seen, Chiyo-ni’s

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

The difference in Japanese is that the latter verse uses the term shiohi gata — “the ebb tide beach” in the original, while the former uses just shiohi — “ebb tide.”

Aesthetically Chiyo-ni’s verse is another of those studies in contrasts.  We have the weakening energy of the receding tide (Yin) yet within that environment, we find things that appear lifeless (Yin) are indeed very much alive (Yang), as they wiggle and move in the hand.



Metaphor is not a part of good hokku as I teach it.  Let’s look at just what a metaphor is:

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it is a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object different from, but analogous to, that to which it is properly applicable.”

Anyone who has studied Western poetry or English literature in general should readily know what that means when applied to poetry.  It means, put simply, saying one thing is another, as opposed to the simile, which says one thing is like another.

If a writer, for example, says that mountains are “silent folk,” he is saying that mountains are “folk,” meaning people.  He does not, of course, really believe the mountains are silent folk; he is just using metaphor as a poetic technique to make his point.  If he were using a simile (which he probably should in this case), he would say instead, that mountains are like silent folk.

When William Wordsworth wrote that he would “sit and play with similes,” he came up with many names for the daisy.  He called it “a nun demure, of lowly port” and “a little Cyclops, with one eye.”  These, of course, are really metaphors used in that manner, but if Wordsworth had written instead, “The daisy is like a nun demure, of lowly port,” he would be using simile.

Where Robert Burns said in simile, “My love is like a red, red rose,” Robert Herrick instead chose metaphor — “You are a tulip seen today…”

There is no confusion, then, about what a metaphor is and what a simile is, and neither is to be found in good hokku as I teach it.


Yesterday I used this verse to demonstrate how some and misinterpret hokku.  It is Bashō’s hokku

Summer grasses –
All that remains
Of warriors’ dreams.

You, dear reader, know what metaphor is, and there is not the slightest trace of it to be found in that verse.  If Bashō had said instead

Warriors’ dreams–
They are only summer grasses
In the fields.

THAT would be metaphor.  But of course that is not what Basho wrote, just a rewriting to make his verse fit Western metaphor.

In an earlier posting, I mentioned another old hokku of Bashō that is commonly misinterpreted as metaphor.  Let’s look at it again, because it reveals the technique that was really used:

Kare eda ni   karasu no tomari-keri   aki no kure
Withered branch on   crow ga has-perched   autumn ‘s evening

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

Some go wild with this one, finding it filled with metaphor.  The see it in terms of Western poetry instead of hokku aesthetics.

The verse, instead of being an example of metaphor in hokku, is instead a very good example of the principle of internal reflection.

To clarify, let’s look at the difference:

Metaphor is saying one thing is another.
Internal reflection is the combining of elements that reflect one another.

Here is how internal reflection works in this particular hokku:

We have these elements:

1.  A withered branch
2.  A perching crow
3.  An autumn evening

The branch, which is withered, is reflected in the autumn, which is the time of withering in Nature; further, evening is the time of day when Yang energies decline into night, so all these elements exhibit a loss of Yang energies.

The crow is black; this is reflected in the gathering darkness of the evening,

Everything in this verse, then, depicts a decline of Yang.  The crow has settled on the branch, reflecting the passivity of Yin; the darkness of the crow is Yin, as is the evening, as is the autumn, as is the withered branch.

One may alternatively translate aki no kure as “autumn’s end,” but the same principle still applies.  The end of autumn is a decline of Yang energies, a time of growing Yin.

It is just that simple.   We should not see metaphor in the verse, but rather the internal reflection that takes place among its component elements.

Now why do so many fail to see this?  It is because they have never been taught the importance and significance of the use of Yin and Yang in hokku, and how they are employed in internal reflection.  So they misinterpret the verse — as they misinterpret numbers of other hokku — as examples of metaphor, because they see it only in terms of what is already familiar to them, and what is familiar to them is the methodology of Western poetry and literature, which they then misapply to hokku.



It is a mistake to think that I present old hokku here simply to translate them into English.  My ultimate purpose in doing so is to teach readers how to write new and original hokku in English, and one of the best ways to do this is to show them not only how old hokku were written, but also how to put them into English-language form.

Chiyo-ni wrote:

Hirou mono    mina ugoku nari   shiohigata
Picked-up things all moving are  tide-ebb-beach

Things picked up
Are all moving;
The ebb-tide beach.

Everything in the Japanese version is there, but I prefer a shortened and re-arranged version that demands slightly more of the reader:

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

That verse flows more smoothly, and seems as though written originally in English.  And that is how our verse should be; they should be English-language hokku, not adaptations of Japanese form and usage.

We can say then that English-language hokku preserves the aesthetics and techniques of old Japanese hokku, but makes them thoroughly American or British or Australian, etc.   We should never view hokku in English as a kind of cultural outpost of old Japan (and certainly not of modern Japan); instead our hokku should reflect our own country and environment.

That does not mean, however, that if we live in a busy city we should write hokku about subways or elevators or taxis.  That would violate the Nature-centeredness of hokku.  What it means is that our hokku should be in keeping with the language and the natural environment of the place in which we live.  Living in a busy city is simply not conducive to writing hokku.  Living in the country is far better, or even in a small town where people still have yards and gardens and nearby woodlands and streams.  That is just a fact of hokku.

People in modern haiku often complain about this, saying that hokku is simply not attuned to the modern world.  That is not true.  Hokku is always attuned to the present world, but it is not attuned to present human technology, because a technological lifestyle really has nothing to do with hokku.  Imagine Henry David Thoreau living in the heart of a big city.  He would have been a fish out of water.  He would have had to make trips to the countryside to nourish his spirit, to find green spaces, clean waters, and trees.

The fact that hokku is not attuned to a modern, technological lifestyle is not a defect in hokku; it is a defect in modern life.  That is why we do not (as people in modern haiku do) adjust hokku to fit our lifestyle; instead we adjust our lifestyle to fit hokku.



In old hokku cherry blossoms were so prominent that they were often not even called cherry blossoms in writing.  Just the word hana — “blossoms” — by itself came to mean cherry blossoms.

Conversely, the word cherry (sakura) used to describe the tree was also simply interpreted as a cherry tree in blossom.  Those were two of the important conventions of old hokku.

We could add to that the deep significance of the brief blooming period of the cherry trees, which caused the mention of cherry blossoms alone to evoke a feeling of brevity and transience in the reader — the brevity of youth and beauty, the transience of life.  So even though the subject “cherry blossoms” is a spring subject, associated with youth and freshness and beginnings, inherent in it is also the knowledge of the transience of such things, the impermanence and fragility of life and happiness.

In the gap
Between rough windy rains —
The first cherry blossoms.

This — by Chora — is a study in contrasts — the strong, blowing rain, and the delicacy of the opening cherry blossoms in the pause between storms.  One cannot help being reminded of Shakespeare’s famous lines from Sonnet 18:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May….

Huge crowds would come out to view the cherry blossoms, walking among the blooming trees, as Chora also wrote:

All the people,
Going into blossoms,
Coming out of blossoms.

In that verse, the abundance of people is in keeping with the abundance of the blossoms.  The people are dressed in their finery, as the trees are clothed in beautiful blossoms.

Even Issa has this reverent attitude:

Having bathed in hot water
And reverenced the Buddha —
Cherry blossoms!

Issa has prepared himself for the viewing by bathing his body and by purifying his mind.

Bashō is known for his practice of mixing traditional “high” subjects found in the more “poetic” waka with “low” and earthy subjects to make hokku, as here:

Beneath the trees,
Even in the soup and fish salad —
Cherry blossoms.

This kind of verse is a counterbalance to over-romanticizing.

Chora also has a remarkably peaceful verse:

The sound of petals falling
Through the trees.

Literally, he says “of falling petals rubbing.”  We could also translate it like this:

The rustle of falling
Cherry blossoms.

Here again we see the importance of contrasting combinations in hokku.  The silence is only enhanced by the almost imperceptible rustling of the falling blossoms.