Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century.  Chief among them are these:

1.  The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th  century wrote “haiku”: 
They did not.  The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki.  Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku.  To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing.  So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.

2.  The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not.  
The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse.  Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter. 

The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles.  Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context.  Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.

Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:

  1.  Hokku is formulaic.
    That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku.  The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle.  So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics.  But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.

2.  In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true.  Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku.  For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex.  Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics.  That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse.  That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture.  Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.

What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so.  Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.”  It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.

In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics.  By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all.  It is the “quick and easy” choice.   However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.





As regular readers here know, I am not a big fan of the verses of Issa, but there are a few worthwhile examples among them.  Here is one:


The pine I planted
Has also become old.
The autumn evening.

I repeatedly stress that (unlike haiku) it is necessary to study how to write hokku, because it has definite standards and principles and characteristics that must be learned.  It is also necessary to learn how to read hokku.

The history of modern haiku, paradoxically,  is an illustration of that.  Modern haiku began through the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the old hokku.  Western writers read a few examples of hokku, and they focused on its superficial characteristics, without understanding its inherent aesthetics.  They read hokku without understanding what they were reading, and then went on to create modern haiku.  As students of hokku, however, we can see what they missed.

Issa’s verse is an autumn hokku.  That means it should express the season.  Of course it mentions autumn, but does it express it?

A student of hokku will know that autumn is the season of decreasing yang (active, warm) energy, and the increase of yin energy (passive, cool).  And that autumn, in human life, corresponds to old age.  And that in a day of 24 hours, autumn corresponds to late afternoon and evening.

A student will also know that at the heart of hokku aesthetics is impermanence — the knowledge that everything in this world is transient, nothing lasts.  That which is born must eventually age and die.

Knowing these things, let’s look at the hokku again:

The pine I planted
Has also become old.
The autumn evening.

In hokku we have the principle of internal reflection, where one element is “reflected” by other elements.  So in this verse we have

The aging of the pine;
The “autumn” of the day (evening)
The implied aging of the writer.

All of these things express declining yang and increasing yin, which is the essence of the season of autumn.  So the autumn evening is reflected in the aging of the pine and in the implied aging of the writer.  Everything in this verse is in harmony, speaking of age and impermanence.

There is also an additional cultural element, which is that in Japan and China the pine tree is an old symbol of age and longevity, but one need not know that to appreciate the verse in an English-language culture.  But one does have to understand how the elements of the hokku work together to express the nature of autumn, and how we see it in the pine and in ourselves.

Here is the verse in Japanese:

waga ueshi matsu mo oi keri aki no kure
我        植し      松     も 老 けり 秋  の    暮
I          planted pine too aged has autumn ‘s evening

I have noticed that one online modern haiku group has begun presenting a few member verses classified as “stand-alone hokku.”   As one might expect from the haiku site context, they exhibit neither the aesthetics of the hokku nor its correct form in English.  That seems to always be what happens when people attempt hokku without understanding its standards, principles, and characteristics — they just end up writing more modern haiku instead of hokku, no matter if they confusingly attach the title “hokku” to it.  Just calling a verse “hokku” does not make it so.  It must have the aesthetics and standards of a hokku, and those one must learn, whether the intent is to read or to write it.  Otherwise one just adds to the confusion.

By the way, the use of the term “stand-alone” in referring to hokku is largely modern haiku jargon.  A real hokku is a hokku whether it is presented in the context of linked verse, embedded in prose, or used independently.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that Masaoka Shiki invented the independent hokku (which he began calling “haiku”) near the beginning of the 20th century, but that is not true.  Hokku were often used as independent verses by Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century, and became quite common.




Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:


A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:


On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.



 There are some hokku that do not seem quite right but nonetheless have value for what they are.

There is, for example, this spring verse by Buson:

Osoki hi no   tsumorite tōki   mukashi kana
Long day ‘s accumulating far   past         kana

The long days
The distant past.

The point of the verse is this:

In spring one notices the lengthening of days, which seem all the longer now that the short days of winter are past.  As these spring days follow one another, each longer than the preceding, one begins to feel the length of the passing of time.  It makes the past, the “old days,” seem ever more distant.

The primary feeling of this hokku is a recognition of the relentless passage of time, which continually carries us away from the past and onward into the unknown future.  Did you notice that the second line — just one word in English — is visually shorter than the three words of the first line?  Yet if we say it in our minds it sounds very long, and adds to the sense of time passing slowly.

Blyth, rightly, I think, thought the poem in its literal form a bit too much for Westerners unfamiliar with hokku to grasp, so he elaborated it in his version, to bring out the sense of time slowly passing, yet the past constantly receding from us:

Slow days passing, accumulating, —
How distant they are,
The things of the past!

His use of “passing, accumulating” emphasizes the feeling of the slowness of the day that one gets with the lengthening of days in spring, and it increases the sense of time accumulating like dust in an attic, burying the past ever deeper.  He also lengthens in words the mention of the past (“How distant they are, / The things of the past!), where Buson has merely “The distant past.”  That lengthening also gives us the feeling inherent in the verse that the past — even the recent past — is gradually moving farther and farther away.

This is not hokku at its best, and if it were not for the sense of the length of the spring days, this hokku would be too “thoughty” for a verse form that excels in sensation and tends to avoid too much “thinking.”

Shiki, paradoxically, has a more concrete, if obvious, verse:

Flagler Beach
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sunahama ni   ashiato nagaki   haruhi kana
Sandy-beach on  footsteps long   spring-day kana

On the sandy beach,
A long line of footsteps;
The spring day.

The length of the spring day is reflected in the length of the line of footsteps that parallel the surf and extend beyond the range of sight.  I have chosen to use “long” to modify the footsteps, which is a more subtle way of expressing the length of the spring day for those familiar with hokku.

Blyth, however, chose to use “long” to modify the spring day in his version, making the point of the verse more obvious to Westerners, but less subtle:

On the sandy beach,
Long is the spring day.

In both, however, the emphasis is on the feeling of the feeling of the slowness of time one gets as the days of spring lengthen.

If you wonder why Blyth sometimes tends to make his hokku translations more detailed than they are in the originals, it is because his purpose in writing was to introduce Westerners not only to hokku (which, unfortunately, he called “haiku” in his day), but also to the very different (from Western verse) aesthetic sense behind hokku.

Sadly, Westerners usually just read the verses in Blyth’s books and seem to have ignored or glossed over his important explanations of the aesthetics behind them.   That failure contributed to the confusion that arose in the so-called “haiku movement,” which began in the West in the 1960s — a confusion and disarray that continues to this day, because the Western haiku movement never learned the aesthetic principles necessary for continuing the practice of hokku in the modern world.  That is why “haiku” today is generally something quite unlike hokku, even though often superficially similar in outward appearance.




One of the most difficult things for the beginning student of hokku to grasp is the difference in what we might call “levels” of hokku.  It is common for someone unfamiliar with the principles of hokku to read hundreds of old verses from the time of Bashō and Onitsura in the 17th century up to the time of Shiki and his “haiku” revolt near the turn of the last century, without ever having noticed the differences in “level.”

What do I mean by “level” in hokku?  Put very simply, some verses, however pleasant they may be, are little more than illustrations, “pictures” in words.  In others, however, one has the feeling that there is more going on in the verse than is stated in words.  There is a feeling of hidden “depth.”

Hokku with “depth” were appreciated through most of the history of hokku.  But near the end of the 19th century, with the “reforms” of Shiki, verses became more and more like “pictures,” without depth.  Everything was on the surface, so we speak of such verses as “superficial,” even though they may still be pleasing.

Shiki was a great admirer of the earlier writer Buson, who was a painter as well as a composer of hokku.  But even Buson came up with verses with “depth,” while those of Shiki himself tend to be superficial, to be little more than pleasant illustrations.  I often compare hokku of this kind to those attractive Japanese woodblock prints one finds by Hasui and Yoshida.  It does not mean they are bad, it just means that they lack depth.

Here, for example, is a “spring” verse by Shiki:

Spring rain;
Holding an umbrella,
Looking at picture books in a shop.

You have to picture a man standing just inside one of those old-fashioned, Japanese open-fronted book shops, looking at the books laid out flat on tables as he holds the kind of paper-and-bamboo umbrella that used to be typical of that time and place.  This verse is a “picture,” with not much more in it than that.

If we look at another spring verse of approximately the same late period, we find that even though it is written by someone else, in this case Otsuji, we still get a kind of illustration:

Torrey Pines State Reserve
(Photo credit: slworking2)

Spring rain;
Seen between the trees —
A path to the sea.

It is pleasant and quiet and undemanding, and though we may think at first that it too is only an illustration, notice that we at least feel behind it the vastness and power of the (hidden) sea.  So while it is still largely a “picture,” it is less superficial than the verse by Shiki.

Now we can turn to the person Shiki so admired — Buson — who lived in the 18th instead of the 19th-20th century:

Bags of seeds
Becoming soaked;
The spring rain.

To the novice, that might seem to be little different from the other two verses, but really it is worlds apart.  Like them, it is an event in spring, but in this case we sense the power inherent in the bags of seeds, and we know that the spring rain is going to affect them if they are left in it for long; they are going to begin to swell and sprout with abundant new life.  So even without it being said, we feel a kind of hidden power in this verse, something “big” going on that is not even mentioned in the words of the verse.  That unspoken part of a hokku, which is really all the better for being left unspoken, is what gives depth.  In Buson’s verse we really feel the nature and character of spring, which we do not in the other two.

Of course not all hokku are quite that obvious.  In general we can say, however, that older hokku tend to have more depth than verses written after Shiki’s propaganda urged writers to make “sketches from life.”  And of course Shiki liked to call those “new” verses by a different name — “haiku,” even though they were still essentially hokku in form and often in content.

It is useful, then for the student of hokku to look through lots of old hokku, comparing them to see which have a sense of depth, and which are just “pictures” in words, with little beyond that.  The key to determining depth is to look for something unspoken in the hokku, for something beyond what is actually written.  If it is not there, the hokku — like the first example by Shiki, is superficial, no matter how pleasant it may be otherwise.




In previous postings I have discussed the relationship between Zen and hokku (yes, there is one).  Today I would like to talk briefly about where Zen and hokku differ.

Kodaiji Teahouse Dimage 0159

First, Zen is more inclusive than hokku.  Hokku deliberately restricts its subject matter, avoiding topics that trouble or obsess the mind.  That is why hokku generally avoids (R. H. Blyth says “abhors”) “the sentimentality and romance and vulgarity which Zen will view with equanimity

Zen views such things with equanimity, but ordinary people who have not reached that high level — meaning the people who write hokku — do not, are not yet able.   That is why hokku avoids wars and pestilence and plagues and riots and disasters.  It is done, again as Blyth says, because “we wish to forget them, and must do so if we are to live our short life in any sort of mental ease.”  That is even more true of our modern and very stressful society.  Hokku is a quiet refuge in the midst of the turmoils of life, and all the more valuable for being such.

Hokku, being a contemplative verse form (particularly as I teach it), consequently follows the old tradition of  avoiding violence and sex and romance and all things that unduly disturb the mind.  Instead, it turns our attention to the changing seasons and to Nature, treating humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the subject matter of hokku.

That is in great contrast to modern haiku, which generally has virtually unrestricted subject matter.  In haiku one may write about iphones and digital TVs, about wars and rumors of wars, about social injustice issues and one’s new girlfriend or boyfriend and all the intimate details.  Not so hokku.

That means there is a refreshing peace and purity to hokku.

Bashō expressed this peace and purity somewhat indirectly in an autumn hokku that is very culturally Japanese, but the principle behind it is universal:

Autumn nears;
The mind inclines toward
The four-and-a-half mat room.

That makes a rather awkward and obscure hokku in English until it is explained; what Bashō was saying is that as one feels autumn beginning, the mind feels the need for a withdrawal from “the world” into the peace of the small, spare, aesthetically tranquil little room of the hut in which the tea ceremony is performed, that peaceful, quiet, studied practice that was so important in traditional Japanese culture.

We could translate it in English as

Autumn nears;
The mind is drawn
To the teahouse.

That, however, does not achieve the feeling of the original, because a tea house in English does not convey the earthy, simple aesthetics of the small, grass-matted room in which the Japanese tea ceremony was performed.

So though we cannot use this hokku as a good model for writing in English because of its cultural difference and the need to explain it, we can nonetheless appreciate the desire expressed in it to be in keeping with the nature of autumn, which is a retiring from the busy world into silence and simplicity and a kind of inward contemplation.

That tells us a lot about hokku as compared to haiku.  Modern haiku, in general, has lost this intimate connection with Nature, this simplicity and tendency toward contemplative spirituality, as it has evolved to encompass all kinds of subjects and emotions.  But hokku still is what it was — a peaceful refuge in a troubled and stressful world.

That is why we all may feel, as autumn now begins, that our minds — our hearts (the word is the same for both in Japanese) — incline toward this peaceful refuge of hokku, while around us, all of Nature begins to fade and wither and decline and return to the root.



From time to time I like to remind readers that the careless use of the term “haiku” to describe what historically is really hokku is not only anachronistic but also inaccurate and confusing.  Here is a slightly modified earlier article I posted on the topic:

ja: 鈴木其一(寛政八〜安政五年)画『朝顔図屏風』 en: Asagao-zu Byōbu...

It is both interesting and useful to note that the term “haiku” did not begin to catch on in the West until the middle of the 1900s. Prior to that time, when Americans or Europeans spoke of the brief Japanese verse form, they correctly called it either “hokku” — the specific term for an individual verse — or “haikai” — the collective term for the wider practice of which the hokku was the most important part.

In 1905 the Frenchman Paul Louis Couchod, writing some verses in imitation of the Japanese, published a book titled Au Fil de l’eau, filled with verses he called haikaï.

Another Frenchman, Fernand Gregh, came up with more imitative verses titled Quatrains in the Form of the Japanese Haikaï. And yet another, Albert de Neville, wrote a collection of verses titled 163 Haikaï and Tanka, Epigrams in the Japanese Manner (I have translated these last two titles).

It is not difficult to see that the term favored in France for the Japanese hokku was the term describing the wider practice, haikai, which was also the term favored by Bashō and the other writers up to the time of Shiki, though of course the opening verse, whether it appeared alone or as the beginning of a verse sequence, was the hokku. So really either is correct. That is why today we write hokku, but it still falls within what Bashō termed haikai. Because we tend to concentrate on the individual verses, we more frequently say “hokku” than “haikai.”

These early writers and others in France give us not only what is apparently the first attempt to write the verse form in the West, but also the first examples of how Westerners completely misunderstood the hokku, interpreting it not as it was but as they thought it was. That resulted in such peculiar French pseudo-“haikai” as this 1920 attempt by Gilbert de Voisins:

Trois vers et très peu de mots
Pour vous décrire cent choses…
La Nature en bibelots.

Three verses and very few words
To describe to you one hundred things …
Nature in trinkets.

That is quite far from authentic hokku.

And Paul Eluard, writing in 1920, presents us with another verse as unlike hokku as anything one is likely to find on today’s modern haiku blogs:

Le vent
Roule une cigarette d’air.

The wind
Rolls a cigarette of air.

When we come to writers in English, we find that in spite of Basil Hall Chamberlain’s title Basho and the Japanese Poetical Epigram (1902), the favored English term for the verse form was hokku, which was precisely the correct term for such an individual verse of Bashō and the other writers in Japan.

Ezra Pound, for example, called a hokku a hokku:

The Japanese have evolved the still shorter form of the hokku.

‘The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly.’

This is the substance of a very well-known hokku.” (from Vorticism, 1914)

Pound could not tell good from bad hokku, nor did he really grasp what a hokku was as distinct from Western notions about it.

Amy Lowell wrote Twenty-four Hokku on a Modern Theme (1921). She did not understand the true nature of the hokku any better than the French or Ezra Pound, as one can see from such mutations as:

Night lies beside me
Chaste and cold as a sharp sword.
It and I alone.

Even Yone Noguchi (1875-1947), though calling what he wrote in English hokku, came up with verses as romanticized and unlike the genuine hokku as anything conceived by Americans or Europeans in the early 1900s, such as this 1920 example:

Suppose the stars
Fall and break?—Do they ever sound
Like my own love song?

Noguchi was born in Japan but spent considerable time living in the West and absorbing the “Western” concept of poetry, which was also influencing Japan at that time, and the result, as one sees from his verse, was like trying to genetically cross a dog and a cow. Noguchi evinces as little understanding of the hokku as any confused Westerner.

It is unfortunate but obvious, then, that though the writers of Europe and America were using the correct terminology for a hokku, they had no genuine understanding of what it was, as their attempts at writing show. We learn from this that simply calling a verse hokku does not make it hokku. None of these early enthusiasts writing in Western languages really had the foggiest idea how to write a genuine hokku in the tradition of Onitsura and Bashō and the other great writers of Japan prior to Shiki. But at least they got the terminology right.

So in the first part of the 1900s, Westerners knew the Japanese verse form was hokku as part of haikai, but they failed to understand what a hokku really was.

Imagine, then, how confusing it became when, in the mid 1900s, the terminology suddenly changed, when what had previously been called the “hokku,” though greatly misinterpreted, suddenly began being called the “haiku” in the English language. All the confusions and misperceptions and misunderstandings that had been placed on the hokku by American and European writers were simply transferred to a “new” anachronistic and historically incorrect term.

But how did the change in terminology come about?

It is due partly to the Japanese themselves, who in the first half of the 20th century, being overwhelmed by Western culture and technology, gradually displaced the old term “hokku” with the term used by Masaoka Shiki to describe his revised re-interpretation of the hokku form — “haiku.”

As we have seen, early writers in the West used the original and genuine term, hokku, though they had no idea what they were writing about. The public at large scarcely took notice in any case. Then in 1932 a Japanese named Asataro Miyamori came out with a large volume in English titled An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern (1932). Few in the West read it, but those who did were introduced to hokku under Shiki’s revisionist term haiku, which had by then become popularized in Japan.

Then the confusion multiplied in the West. Harold Henderson came out with his little volume of translated hokku The Bamboo Broom (1934), but also following popular Japanese usage of the time, he too called the verses “haiku,” not, as they should have been correctly termed, “hokku.” And make no mistake. Almost all the verses Henderson included were really hokku, not haiku.

But what really changed the scene was the work of Reginald Horace (“R. H.”) Blyth, who in works published between 1942 and 1963 consistently used the then-popular term in Japan — “haiku” — to describe the traditional hokku. That is not surprising, because Blyth took up residence in Japan and used the terminology popular in the Japan of his day, but it is nonetheless very unfortunate that he unwittingly contributed to misunderstanding when he worked so diligently to explain the aesthetics of what was really hokku to the West.

Because Blyth was the most prolific writer on the subject, and also by far the most widely-read and the best, the older and historically-correct term “hokku” was largely displaced in American and British understanding by the newer, imprecise, anachronistic and revisionist term “haiku.” This very confusing change of terminology in describing what was already a thoroughly misunderstood verse form in the West only created virtual chaos in the public mind.

The use of “haiku” instead of hokku was enthusiastically supported by such budding groups of Western writers as the Haiku Society of America, which often furthered the misperceptions of the verse form that had been common in the West since the days of Couchod, of Pound, and of Lowell.  The teaching of “haiku” in the 20th century tended to perpetuate such misconceptions, and that trend has continued even into the 21st century, which has only exacerbated the misunderstanding and confusion regarding hokku and haiku.

Now what does all this chaotic history mean for us today? It means simply that hokku as the verse form written from Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century up to the end of the 19th century was never really transmitted to the West. The “starter,” to use a baking term used in making sourdough bread, never “took.”

The number of persons who understand and practice the old, genuine hokku in English is today very small in comparison to the huge numbers of writers of the “haiku” in its multitude of variations. The average writer of haiku has never learned the nature and characteristics and aesthetics of the old hokku, and simply cannot recognize one as distinct from haiku. That is how thoroughly misperceptions of the old hokku have pervaded Western understanding in  the 20th and early 21st centuries.

It is true that genuine hokku may be found in the works of Miyamori, of Henderson, and of Blyth, but even these potential models — in spite of Blyth’s superb commentaries — were re-formed in the Euro-American mind to fit inaccurate Western preconceptions and personal whims.

What did appear in the West as hokku in the early 1900s and as haiku from the 1960s onward was simply a new Western verse form that embodied the Western misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku. Like Chinoiserie and Japanoiserie in art, it was a romanticized and completely inaccurate Western misperception of an Asian aesthetic matter.

That means, essentially, that all those haiku groups and literary publications that began appearing in America and Britain in the 1960s generally have no genuine connection with what was written by Bashō and Onitsura and other Japanese writers in the two-plus centuries prior to the revisionism of Shiki.  Nor, with very few exceptions, do of the vast number of “haiku” writers from the mid-20th century up to the present have any relation to genuine pre-Shiki hokku, or even with the conservative “haiku” advocated by Shiki himself, which was often just hokku under a different name.

What has happened, however, is that people have generally misinterpreted the fact that modern haiku was inspired by the old hokku as evidence that modern haiku is a continuation of the old hokku. That is like imagining that humans and chimpanzees are essentially the same today simply because they had a common evolutionary ancestor.

The haiku is not at all the same as the hokku. Instead, it developed out of the old hokku through the revisionism of Masaoka Shiki in Japan, near the end of the 19th century. And it is bizarre, to say the least, that in any modern “history of haiku,” the greater part of text is taken up in describing what is really, historically, hokku — which bears no relationship to modern haiku other than that already described — that the haiku was “loosely inspired,” as one might say, by the outward form of the old hokku. And that is really the only connection. Aside from that tenuous link, modern haiku in English and other European languages is actually a new, Western verse form created initially from misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku.

Hokku is not and never was haiku as the term is understood today, and until one understands that basic fact, one will not be able to understand the hokku or learn how to practice it.




IMG_1303 Big Ant
Big Ant (Photo credit: kainr)

If one does not have an understanding of the basic principles of hokku, it is often difficult to appreciate a verse because one simply does not “get” it.  This was a major factor in the rise of modern haiku in the west, which began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku.

I often talk about this or that principle of hokku here, because without an understanding of those principles it is difficult to fully appreciate hokku.

One of those principles is internal reflection.  Internal reflection means that the quality or character of one thing in a hokku is reflected in the quality or character of another thing.  Internal reflection is very common in hokku, and gives it a certain depth.

Take for example this summer verse by Shirō:

A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
The heat!

This is a very obvious example of internal reflection, so obvious that some people are likely to “get” it without realizing just why.

Put very simply, the magnitude of the present heat is reflected in the hugeness of the ant. The writer (and the understanding reader) perceives the “bigness” of the oppressive heat in the “bigness” of the ant.

R. H. Blyth attempted to to explain this by saying,

It will do no harm to say that the ant is a symbol of the heat, provided we remember that it is so because it is felt to be so, and in as much as it has no rationally explicable connection with that heat.”

Well, it can do harm.  Blyth obviously knew, even while writing the sentence, that the ant is not really a symbol of the heat, and that his attempt to explain the matter is potentially misleading.  And there is a connection that can be explained rationally and simply, and without the potential confusion inherent in Blyth’s attempt.

In hokku one thing does not symbolize another.   Each thing has its own value and significance, but that value or significance can be enhanced or deepened through internal reflection, which is actually what happens in this verse.  The unusual size of the ant reflects the unusual “size” of the heat.  The quality or character of one thing is reflected in the quality or character of another.

While Blyth was without question the most perceptive of the writers on hokku, unfortunately he did not present the nature and fundamentals of writing hokku in a simple and systematic fashion, which has led to much of what he had to say being either overlooked or ignored or forgotten today.  And of course there is his regrettable anachronistic use of the term “haiku” for what was and is really hokku.  Nonetheless, there is still much to be learned from Blyth, though one must work at it, and few are willing to put forth the effort.

But we need not go into all of that.  What we do need to remember is the principle of internal reflection and how it works in hokku, because it is very often used.

And by the way, in the original verse, what I have translated as “floor” is tatami — those woven mats of grass on a wooden framework that together formed the floor in the traditional Japanese home.  But for us, in English, “floor” does the job.



Yesterday I discussed a kind of “fundamentalism” one finds among those who talk about hokku and haiku, and I wrote, essentially, that it does not matter to me (except historically) what any of the old hokku writers had to say about the hokku and its nature; what matters is the validity of the verse itself, on its own merits.

English: Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924), &q...

Now that can easily be misunderstood. Some people may think it means, “I don’t care what the original writers considered to be hokku, I am going to write it however I please.”

That, in fact, is the attitude and practice of a great many people in the modern haiku community, but it is not mine.

On the other hand, there are those who examine every detail of old hokku and say that the way we write it today cannot vary in any particular from how the hokku writers of the 17th or 18th century — or a certain one among them — wrote it. Some even say it is impossible to write “genuine” hokku in English — that it can be written only in Japanese. That, again, is not my position either.

My position is simply this. In my teaching of hokku, I have taken its essence — what I consider to be the best and most practical aspects of both form and content — and I have adapted those to the English language. The English-language hokku form reflects the essence of the old Japanese form, though of course it is now “reborn” in an English-language format. And the aesthetics I teach are very much the aesthetics of the old hokku.

Because of that, I continue to call what I teach hokku. And I can look at what is written by other people, and I can tell them whether it is hokku, or close to hokku, or only superficially hokku, or not hokku at all in anything but brevity.

So what I teach is hokku, a continuation of the old tradition, but in the English language.
However, as I have said, the kind of hokku I teach stands on its own merits now. Consequently there is no need to refer to Japan at all. If hokku is “good” verse — if it does what it is supposed to do as hokku according to the principles and aesthetics I teach, then if for some reason we had to call it something else and never mention Japan again, it would still be a verse practice with its own value and virtue. It does not have to rely on any 17th or 18th or 19th century historical validation of it merits.

That too, is why I like my students to think of hokku as I teach it as something without a history, so that they may see it as something new, and may learn it on its own terms. Of course it does have a history, and we can trace it back centuries — but for writing it today, all of that is really unimportant except for academic reasons. In the actual practice of writing hokku, it does not matter at all.

The result is that I do not encourage students to take up the study of old literary Japanese, or the sociology of Japan in the Edô period, or any of those things. None are necessary for learning and writing hokku. One may study them if one likes, but to do so is not in the least necessary for the successful learning and writing of hokku. In fact for many people, such things simply become just another distraction and obsession.

Those who learn hokku from me are learning modern English-language hokku. They are not learning Japanese hokku, they are not learning a hokku that requires validation by  Bashô or Buson or Shiki.  They are just learning hokku as I teach it. That is the best way to approach it.



Every now and then, I like to clarify my approach to the hokku — that is, to teaching the writing of new hokku — for readers who may be novices here.

English: Portrait drawing of Henry David Thoreau

As many of you know, I have been teaching hokku on the Internet for many long years; in fact to the best of my knowledge, I was the very first person to ever actually teach either hokku or haiku on the Internet. Of course now the number of such people is legion, but I am still — again to the best of my knowledge — the only person actively teaching the hokku as distinct from modern haiku.

Except as a matter of historical interest, it does not matter in the least to me what Bashō or Taigi or Gyōdai or Buson or Issa or any of the other writers of old hokku had to say about the nature or composition of the hokku. Further, it similarly does not matter to me (again except for historical reasons) what is said by any modern scholar, Japanese or Western, about the history or practice or aesthetics of the old hokku or of its numerous offshoots, ancient or modern.

Why? Because what I teach as hokku does not depend for its validity or value on any of that. Instead, the hokku I teach stands on its own merits. And though one can say that hokku as I teach it reflects and continues this or that aspect of the old hokku, it would not matter to me in the slightest if it did not.

Do not misunderstand. There is an obvious and very clear continuity between old hokku and what I teach, because I teach largely from old examples written from the 1600s to near the beginning of the 20th century. In that, one could say that what I teach is as close to old hokku as one is likely to get. The only difference is that I translate the models I use for teaching into English form and punctuation. So hokku as I teach it is a continuation of the old hokku, but in a different language, and with emphasis on some aspects of the originals that fit what I consider to be hokku at its best, and a de-emphasis on aspects of old hokku that I regard as superficial or unnecessary.

There are endless quibbles in print and on the Internet over what is “real” in the history of the hokku, which many people today anachronistically and inaccurately term “haiku,” confusingly mixing it with modern haiku: What was the role in old Japan of “season words”? What is the historic use of “cutting words?” Did Bashō use metaphor or not? Did Shiki “free” the hokku when he re-named it “haiku”? How can we write “real” hokku or “real” haiku (for those who use that word) today, if we do not know precisely how it was written in old Japan? To me one need not worry about such questions.  It all just leads to pointless bickering.  Such discussions  are merely of academic — not practical — interest.

Some may wonder why, then, I teach hokku by frequently using translated or modified old Japanese examples.  It is not because such examples validate what I teach as a quotation from “scripture” presumably validifies this or that religious doctrine.  It is, instead, because the examples I choose exemplify quite well aspects of the hokku aesthetics I teach, and it is easy for the student to use them as models for the structure and aesthetics of writing hokku today. A good model makes for good learning. So the old hokku I use in teaching validate what I teach not because they are old, but because they are good.

I like to teach the hokku as though it had no history at all, because then people do not get caught up in those kinds of fundamentalistic arguments over whether this particular brand of hokku or haiku is what Bashō “really” taught, or whether this or that word in a Japanese original actually meant something other than it appears to mean.

I consider all such questions to be literary archeology, or idle speculation irrelevant to the actual writing of hokku today. It is an unnecessary distraction, and worse than that, it is the cause of seemingly endless bitter quarrels and animosity among different factions over whose form of verse is the most genuine, the most in keeping with the spirit of the original — the most “scriptural,” one is tempted to say, because again, it all seems to me like arguing over points of religious doctrine — and equally as profitless.

So I repeat, for emphasis, that hokku as I teach it has nothing to do with all that. People may think of it, if they wish, as something completely separate from the history of hokku or that of haiku — something entirely new. That way they will not approach it with all the baggage of this or that faction of the modern haiku community, or this or that faction of Japanese or Western scholarship on the history of hokku. My students should never feel that they have to justify the form or aesthetics of what they write from any old Japanese writings or any statement by past or modern scholars.

That approach to hokku automatically removes the cause of a great deal of bother and dissension. It frees students from caring whether R. H. Blyth accurately represented the Japanese hokku or did not, whether Shiki was justified in his revisionism of hokku into “haiku,” whether the “right” path is set forth today by this or that pundit or advocate or critic of hokku or of modern haiku. It saves a tremendous amount of needless historical research and semi-religious, fundamentalistic “proof-texting.”

Above all, that approach gives one a sense of extraordinary freedom in one’s practice of hokku, because then one can just concentrate on learning its principles and in writing it and developing one’s understanding of it. All the rest matters not one whit.

Of course, to repeat, doing so is dependent upon one’s desire to do so, and whether to write hokku as I teach or not is entirely up to the individual and his or her inclinations. Those who prefer some other verse form or no form at all will not find themselves cast into outer darkness or anathematized. To each his or her own. But of course I will continue to teach “my” approach to hokku on this site, for those who may be interested.

And I will continue to hope, as I always have, that there are some out there who will find that hokku as I teach it — which I sometimes call Contemplative Hokku — “speaks to their condition,” as the Quakers say — that they will see the virtues and value that I find in it.

So, to conclude , if you want to learn hokku from my postings here, please do so without any sense of dogmatism in comparing it to the past or present of either hokku or of haiku. It is helpful to completely separate from any such history or dogma. Learn it for itself, because it is only by doing so that you will discover what it has to offer.

Keep in mind, as you do so, Henry David Thoreau’s principle that what is required is not “new clothes” (in change of form or subject matter in this case) but rather “a new wearer of clothes.” I teach that we should not drastically change hokku to fit us and our whims, but rather that we should change to accord with the profundity underlying hokku. That is, seen deeply, just what it was for Thoreau — a spiritual teaching.

You will find it, I think, a liberating experience.



It is unfortunate that when Reginald H. Blyth wrote his series of volumes extolling and

English: Yamazakura,_Cerasus_jamasakura
Yamazakura -- Mountain Cherry

explaining what were, for the most part, verses of hokku, he made the mistake of using the revisionist term then popular in the Japan of his day — “haiku.”  But of course for most people in those times, there was no obvious difference; the majority still followed the conservative “Shiki” kind of “haiku” that simply adopted the aesthetics of the old hokku, if somewhat diluted. There were already some radicals who had made drastic changes, but those radicalisms were not favored by most ordinary people.

Today, however, the situation is very different.  In the West modern haiku has largely abandoned the aesthetics of the old hokku, so that today haiku is justifiably called by a different name.  But the mistake is often made of thinking that the modern haiku is simply a continuation and a replacement of the old hokku, and that is completely wrong.

Modern haiku is in fact largely the creation of those Westerners in the 20th century — particularly in the latter half of the 20th century — who separated the haiku from the traditional hokku aesthetics practiced by Bashō and all the other writers in the centuries prior to the revisionist changes of Shiki, which began near the end of the 1800s.   Modern haiku is, then, largely the result of Westerners misperceiving and misunderstanding the hokku in terms of what they already knew — the aesthetics of Western poetry.

The aesthetics of the hokku are quite different. The advocates of modern haiku were, in many cases, quite unaware of those aesthetics, and the few who did have some inkling of them either ignored or willfully abandoned them.  Consequently, today the hokku and the haiku are for the most part two very different kinds of verse, even though superficially they appear similar; both are brief, both are generally written in three lines.  That is often the only thing they have in common.

That is why it is so outrageous when a widely-used Internet source such as Wikipedia defines hokku thus:
…the latter term [haiku] is now generally applied retrospectively to all hokku appearing independently of renku or renga, irrespective of when they were written. The term hokku continues to be used in its original sense, as the opening verse of a linked poem.

In other words, they want the unwary reader to believe that the hokku has simply been re-named “haiku” in all cases where it is not used specifically to mean the first of a series of linked verses.  According to that notion, all hokku not linked to other verses somehow automatically become “haiku.”  But that is quite mistaken and inaccurate. How did such gross misunderstandings arise?

They began with the accumulation and piling of error on error.   Sadly, some of these misunderstandings can be traced to Western readers who came upon the volumes of R. H. Blyth.

Blyth’s original purpose in writing was to explain the aesthetics of the hokku to Westerners completely ignorant of it, and he illustrated those aesthetics by translations that were sometimes glosses that went beyond or modified what was actually written in the originals.  His intent was good; he wished to convey aspects of hokku that a Japanese reader would automatically understand, but which a Westerner would simply not “get” if the verse were translated literally and left at that.

Here is a typical example.  A female student of Bashō (Chigetsu) wrote the following hokku, which I will give in both transliteration and my literal translation:

Yamazakura chiru ya ogawa no mizuguruma

Mountain-cherry falls; stream’s waterwheel.

That’s it.  No wonder Blyth felt more was needed for a Westerner to even begin to understand this verse.  So Blyth glossed it as:

Mountain cherry petals
Fall and scatter
Over the water-wheel of the brook.

That certainly conveys what a Japanese reader would get from the original, because Japanese hokku has a long history of requiring something more of the reader — the ability to make an intuitive poetic leap.  Blyth has simply supplied all the words in his English version that a Japanese would intuit.  Blyth is thus fulfilling his intent in writing — he is conveying the overall meaning of the hokku — not just what was written on the page, but also what was to be understood — intuited.

Unfortunately, readers of Blyth often assumed that because he presented the verse in a run-on sentence divided into three lines, it was perfectly all right to compose new verses using that form.  But of course that was not the form of the original hokku.

That original hokku consists, as do modern hokku, of two parts, one longer, one shorter. We will better understand the form if we look at each Japanese word comprising the verse:

Yamazakura = yama (mountain) sakura (cherry) chiru (falls) ya (a cutting particle indicating a meditative pause, generally represented in English-language hokku by a semicolon or dash) Ogawa (o = small, kawa = river) no (a genitive particle equivalent here to ‘s in English, which could also function as a cutting word) mizuguruma (mizu = water, kuruma = wheel).

Blyth, again, did not indicate a separation of the two parts in his gloss because he simply wanted to convey the overall impression of the hokku, and he did so quite well.  But this was all too often understood by Westerners to mean that there were not two parts to the hokku, that there was no separation.  They saw Blyth’s gloss, even though divided into three lines, as one sentence:

Mountain cherry petals fall and scatter over the water-wheel of the brook.

And so came about a basic misunderstanding of the form of the hokku, which of course, following Blyth’s use of the anachronistic term, they called “haiku.” Multiply this misperception many times, and you have the beginnings of the creation of modern haiku in the West.  That is why today modern haiku is in such a fragmented and disparate condition. The best verses one finds in modern haiku are often those few that are most like the hokku.  But such verses are few and far between.

That is why, for the most part, modern haiku is a new Western verse form quite separate both from the old hokku and from Shiki’s original conservative haiku, which was hokku in all but name.

Getting back to our sample verse,  if we were to re-write it in modern hokku form, it would look something like this:

Wild cherry blossoms –

They scatter over the water-wheel

Of the brook.

As you can see, that maintains a two-part division of the old hokku.  It also has a pause, indicated in this case by the dash, separating those two parts.  Modern English-language hokku is simply a continuation of the essentials of the old hokku, though with minor adaptations for a different language.  That is why we can legitimately still consider modern hokku a part of the old hokku tradition; it keeps the essentials of form and the essence of the traditional aesthetic.

That cannot be said of modern haiku, which again is, for the most part, a new and separate kind of verse, though loosely based on the brevity of the old hokku. Modern haiku generally lacks the principles and aesthetics of the genuine hokku.

Incidentally, if any of you are wondering why, in the Japanese transliteration, some words appear in two forms — zakura/sakura, gawa/kawa, guruma/kuruma, then you will want to know that it is just a phonetic change that occurs when certain initial consonants are used in combinations with certain other words, and it does not indicate a change in how the word is actually written in Japanese nor any change in its meaning.   I promise not to always be so detailed when discussing individual hokku, because no knowledge whatsoever of Japanese is necessary if one learns to write hokku correctly in English and other languages other than Japanese.  But one must know the correct English-language form and the underlying principles and aesthetics.  Otherwise what one writes is likely to turn out as “haiku” and not hokku.



Red Apple. Used white paper behind apple and a...

As I never cease repeating here, it is extremely important not to confuse hokku and haiku.  People in the modern haiku community like to say that haiku is just the “new name” for hokku.  I consider that quite mistaken.

If, for example, you write little three-line verses that are not set in a particular season, you are writing modern haiku, not hokku.  You are not even writing haiku as it was practiced by the fellow who began haiku — Masaoka Shiki.  Instead you are writing modern haiku as it is practiced by large numbers of largely self-taught people who have never understood the history and principles of the hokku, or even those of the kind of haiku Shiki wrote.  What they are writing is essentially just a little verse of some kind in three lines.

As I have said many times, even though in modern hokku we keep the essential connection with the seasons, we do not practice hokku precisely as did the old Japanese writers.  There is a very good reason for this.  In old hokku, a system of using “season words” developed.  “Season word” use was not just the indication of the season of a verse by including the name of a month or the name of a season.  It was done by using particular words that by themselves came to be understood as appropriate in hokku only to a certain season.  An obvious one, for example, was “plum blossoms” indicating a verse was a spring verse.  That makes sense.  But many season words were not obvious at all.  For example, a hokku using the term “ebb tide” was also a spring verse; so were verses using “the hazy moon.”

As you might guess, this system became very complicated, so complicated that it eventually took dictionaries of season words and years of study to learn them all and how to use them.  You might think, given that Shiki is considered the originator of the haiku, that Shiki would have simplified matters.  Actually, just the opposite is true.  As R. H. Blyth writes, “In Shiki’s monumental Complete Classified Collection of Haiku there is such an excess of system that the poetry is swamped by it.  For example, there are no less than fifty classes of fans alone.”  By “classes of fans” he means divisions of fans used as season words.  And remember, that is just fans.

Very few people writing modern haiku still use season words.  There has been, in the past few years, an effort to encourage their use among some haiku writers, and even attempts  to compile big lists of “international” season words, but the result is just to bring back the complexity that helped to spoil the hokku originally, and to make it far less spontaneous over the years.  And in any case, most modern writers of haiku do not use the season word system at all, in any form.

The problem then, is this:  If, historically, hokku has always been seasonal verse — with verses connected to and expressing particular seasons of the year — how does one practice it today without the complexity of learning huge numbers of season words, a situation made vastly more complicated now than it was even in the late days of the old hokku?  If one abandons the seasonal connection, it should be obvious that one is no longer writing hokku, but instead modern haiku.

The answer is really very simple.  We cut through the Gordian knot of the problem by simply classifying every hokku we write by the season in which it was written.  A spring hokku is marked “spring”; a summer hokku “summer” and autumn/fall hokku is marked “autumn” or “fall”; and a winter hokku is marked “winter.”  Whenever a hokku is shared or printed, that seasonal classification goes with it.

That eliminates with one blow the needless complexity old hokku developed over time, and it maintains the essential connection of hokku and the seasons that makes it hokku and not modern haiku.

Of course there are numerous other differences between hokku and modern haiku, many of which I have discussed in past postings here.  But the point I want to make today is that hokku without a seasonal connection is not hokku.   One might say that if one takes from the hokku its principles and aesthetics and standards, what is left is modern haiku, like the pulp that is left when the juice is pressed from an apple.  In hokku we want the apple, full and entire.


In my previous posting I skimmed over the topic of Richard Wright and his attempts at writing what he called “haiku.”  Here I shall add just a bit to what was already said.

In my view Wright’s “haiku” are useful in demonstrating clearly how Western writers misperceived and misunderstood the hokku from their very first exposure, seeing it through the distorting lens of their Western preconceptions about poetry and poets. Consequently his “haiku,” represented by the volume Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, 1998) demonstrate how the Japanese hokku, written for centuries, became the “haiku” through its rather confused introduction to the West.

First of all, what is a hokku?  It is a short verse — in three lines in English, though generally one line in Japanese — expressing Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, in the context of the seasons.  It consists of two parts — a longer and a shorter — separated in English by appropriate punctuation.

Richard Wright was exposed to the hokku through the writings of Reginald Horace Blyth, who presented numerous translations of old hokku in his Haiku series, though he obviously and unfortunately used the anachronistic terminology of Shiki common in the Japan of his day.  Nonetheless, the larger part of what Blyth translated and commented upon was hokku, not the revisionistic and conservative “haiku” of Shiki, though Shiki was included in Blyth’s work.

It is important to repeat that when Richard Wright was exposed to the hokku (and conservative haiku) translations of Blyth, he unconsciously mixed what he was seeing with what he already knew of Western poetry, assuming parallels that existed only in his mind.  Consequently when Wright began to compose his own “haiku,” they were heavily influenced by what he was conditioned to think poetry should be, and so he did not see the hokku or the conservative haiku for what it really was.

The result, in the work of Wright and many other self-taught novice writers of the “new” haiku in the mid-20th century, was a hybrid verse that mixed the brief form of the hokku with what was often largely traditional “Western” poetic content.  That is the very simple means by which haiku got off on the wrong foot in the West and continues to misstep awkwardly to this day.

Wright’s “haiku” fall along a graduated scale ranging from verses that — by accident more than anything — may qualify as actual hokku, to verses that hybridize the two (hokku and Western poetry) in varying degrees, to verses that are entirely brief Western poems in substance, with only the brevity of the hokku remaining.

Here, for example, is a Wright “haiku” that has become entirely a Western poem in content, retaining only the shortness of the hokku and nothing of its substance:

Each ebbing sea wave
Makes pebbles glare at the moon,
Then fall back to sleep.

What Wright is really saying is that the successive waves of the withdrawing tide wet pebbles that first reflect back the bright moonlight (glare), then cease to reflect (sleep) as they again lose their watery shine.  But it is the way he says it that is the problem.  As a verse, it does exactly what hokku should not do, which is to mix the fantasy of the writer with reality.  In reality pebbles do not “glare,” nor do they sleep.  Such heavy use of what Wordsworth called the “coloring of the imagination” is, however, very characteristic of Western poetry, which is often heavily fantasy-imagination-based.

Another example of Western fantasy in Wright’s “haiku” is this:

Clutching from the trees,
Thick creepers are strangling clouds
In the lake’s bosom.

No Japanese writer of hokku would have written such a thing.  Again it is just Wright, representative of countless writers of Western “haiku,” smearing his imagination over reality, creating a brief Western poem, but not really a haiku as Shiki knew it, and certainly not a hokku.  Wright seems to have found it very difficult to just let things be as they are:

Every sandgrain
Of the vast sunlit desert
Hears the snake crawling.

Well, no it does not.  Sand grains do not hear.  But Wright must add what he thinks is his poetic imagination to the real poetry of Nature, and in doing so he repeatedly spoils a great many of his “haiku.”

A final example, and an extreme one, of Wright’s failure to understand that in hokku (and in “Shiki” haiku), reality should not be obscured by the writer’s fantasy:

What giant spider spun
That gleaming web of fire-escapes
On wet tenements?

Sadly, one repeatedly encounters such “fantasy” verses in the Wright anthology.  They are the result of an inherent preconception that reality in itself is not “poetic” enough, and must be enhanced by the addition of the writer’s “poetic” imagination.  It is a notion that is death to hokku, but very common in modern Western haiku — a hybrid verse form with little left in it of the hokku or the conservative haiku.

Wright did not understand that a hokku should be a manifestation of a season — something expressing the character of a season.  His use of obvious season, then, seems haphazard.  He assumed, as was and remains common among Western writers of “haiku,” that a haiku is simply an event.  He did not realize that such an event must have a deeply-felt unspoken significance, and so he wrote numbers of verses that leave the reader feeling “So what?”  Here is one of many:

In the July sun,
Three birds flew into a nest;
Only two came out.

Wright’s use of the season here in the word “July” is pointless, because the verse does not express the season.  It is just a random event, a random assemblage of elements.  It does not have the focus and coherence of a real hokku.

Wright sometimes falls victim to the pseudo-profundity syndrome that afflicted so many early Western writers of “haiku,” who thought they should make their verses “Zen-like.”  The result is verses such as:

Six cows are grazing;
The seventh stands near a fence
Staring into space.


The ocean in June:
Inhaling and exhaling
But never speaking.

And another example of pseudo-profundity:

A cathedral bell
Dimming the river water
In the autumn dusk.

As mentioned in my previous posting on Wright, he wrote many verses that are simply obvious variations on old Japanese hokku, verses recognized by anyone with a knowledge of the traditional hokku repertoire:

Among these “imitations” are:

In a dank basement
A rotting sack of barley
Swells with sprouting grain

That is based on this Japanese original by Buson:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

The large numbers of people visiting my site hoping to find something about Richard Wright and his “haiku” will likely be disappointed to read that in my view, Wright never really understood the hokku or the “Shiki” haiku, and consequently his work, when viewed in the context of hokku and of conservative haiku, does not go beyond the experimental student stage.  That he is so often used as an exemplar of “haiku” by teachers in elementary and high schools simply demonstrates that those teachers do not really understand what Wright was doing — and not doing.   And because they lack a background in hokku and an historical understanding of the origins of the Western “haiku,” they are unable to evaluate him objectively, and so spread this misevaluation of his verses among their students.

Wright’s “haiku,” falls between two stools, as the Germans say:  it is neither hokku nor “Shiki” haiku, nor is it for the most part even good as Western poetry.  Like much of modern haiku, it is an odd aberration, a reaching for something that Wright, lacking the technical and aesthetic knowledge, was not able to attain, though one nonetheless sees in his attempts a potential that was to remain unfulfilled.  That is due to his failure to understand the aesthetic point behind both the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku, and so he replaced it with a false point derived from what he already knew of Western poetry — something also characteristic of the great bulk of modern haiku, which follows in a similarly confused and erratic tradition.




The automatic statistics of this site tell me that frequently people come here hoping to see something illuminating about the “haiku” of Richard Wright — just why, I am not certain, given that this site favors hokku and generally considers “haiku” only a mutant degeneration of it.

Nonetheless, I suppose those visitors, given their frequency, should go away with something, so here are a few words about Richard Wright and his “haiku.”

The primary book for Wright’s verses is Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, 1998).  It oddly combines an anthology of his “haiku” with a considerable amount of historical information about what is really Japanese hokku, much of which does almost nothing to illuminate Wright’s verses.

The reason is, of course, that anyone reading the book from an historical perspective discovers very quickly that Wright had the same difficulties, and followed essentially the same course, as almost all those whose verses were written under the influence of R. H. Blyth’s works titled Haiku — works which were really largely about hokku.

In short, Wright followed the standard mid-20th century pattern of reading Blyth and then writing his own verses based upon a distorted Western view of Blyth’s translations — the result of unconsciously mixing one’s own Western preconceptions about poetry with the brevity of the hokku.

Wright’s “haiku” can largely be divided into these categories:

1.  Verses that are essentially brief “Western” poems;
2.  Poems written as variations or studies on Japanese hokku translated by Blyth;
3.  Poems written in a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, which Wright somehow concluded was “standard” for his haiku in English;
4.  Verses written in a 5-5-5 syllabic pattern; and
5.  Verses written in an uneven syllabic pattern.

By examining a few of them, we get a very good picture of the whole of his work:

There are verses that are simply images:

Heaps of black cherries
Glittering with drops of rain
In the evening sun.

(One wonders if that was influenced by William Carlos Williams’ “red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens”).

The very first verse in the book is this:

I am nobody.
A red sinking sun
Took my name away.

It is not a hokku, so we shall have to put it in that vast and vague category of poems that look superficially like hokku but are not — ‘haiku.’  It is too personal, too “me” oriented for hokku.  Essentially it is a brief modern Western poem that would not even qualify as a “Shiki” haiku.  Structurally it consists of three lines, each of which has precisely five syllables.

We will find a great many of Wright’s verses are like this.  And that tells us a great deal about Wright’s approach to verse.  First and foremost, to repeat, it was the result of the unconscious mixture of Western notions of poetry with the brevity of the hokku, a problem endemic in the “haiku movement” of the second half of the 20th century.

As with most beginners in hokku, we find among Wright’s verses the usual, obviously Issa-inspired examples using the technique I call “talk to the animals”:

Make up your mind, snail!
You are half inside your house
And halfway out!

There is no real value in such verses, but one may suppose that through them Wright was experimenting, trying to find his way.  He obviously read a lot of Blyth, but of course as I often lament, Blyth left no clear and specific instructions for writing the hokku in English.  So all too often, his readers were unable to extract the principles of writing hokku in English from the matrix in which Blyth left them embedded in his writings, valuable as those writings are.  So it is no surprise that Wright was left looking about for a path.

Sometimes he detours into what looks like Issa-flavored senryu rather than hokku:

“Shut up you crickets!
How can I hear what my wife
Is saying to me?”

None of the verses given up to this point are hokku, nor are they worthwhile as “Western” verses in general.  But that does not mean Wright’s attempts at haiku are without value.  It just means that we have to sift the better examples out of all the inferior verses.

We find, for example, this:

A summer barnyard;
Swishing tails of twenty cows
Twitching at the flies.

That is hokku.  It is set in a season.  It has Nature as its focus.  And it is in two parts, a longer and a shorter.  Wright seems to have fixated on the predilection of that time for sequences of 5-7-5 syllables as the “right” standard for his verses, which led to a bit of padding, but nonetheless this verse qualifies as a real hokku, and even more importantly, it works as a hokku.   We could improve its form a bit, like this:

A summer barnyard;
The tails of twenty cows
Swishing flies.

But even left as it is, this verse by Wright qualifies as hokku.

One frequently wants to re-write his verses, to free them from the cage of 5-7-5, as in this example:

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

The hokku perception is obviously there, but again Wright’s reading of Blyth failed to provide him with the necessary technique that would have enabled him to reduce this  5-7-5 wordiness to its essentials, which we might do thus:

A winter morning;
Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

Here and there we find verses that essentially repeat an old Japanese hokku, for example Wright’s

The webs of spiders
Sticking to my face
In the dusty woods.

That is just a run-on rephrasing of Buson’s

Spider webs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

And we note of course that Wright has returned here to his 5-5-5 syllable phrasing.

We find other Wright verses all too obviously based upon old hokku, but in doing so we may recall that such variations on old verses are a good way for beginners to learn.  Wright wrote:

Just enough of light
In this lofty autumn sky
To turn the lake black.

That is a variation upon Bashō’s

Cold rain –
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

Another Wright verse is obviously influenced by Shiki:

That abandoned house,
With its yard of fallen leaves
In the setting sun.

A Shiki predecessor was:

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

So we can see that Wright was heavily influenced by the material Blyth provided, even at times too obviously influenced by it.

One sees this influence repeatedly, sometimes for the worse, sometimes — as in this example, for the better:

Wright’s verse:

Burning autumn leaves,
I yearn to make the bonfire
Bigger and bigger.

One cannot but think that was inspired by Seibi’s  Japanese original:

Swatting flies,
I begin to think
Of Killing them all.

In Blyth’s version it is:

Killing flies,
I begin to wish
To annihilate them all.

Exactly the same feeling of starting small and feeling the urge to carry a matter to extremes.

The more one reads Wright’s “haiku,” the more one has the feeling that here was a man with the poetic sensibility to write excellent hokku, but because of the lack of suitable instruction he got lost in the early student phase, becoming mired there.  He never grasped sufficiently the importance of separating the two parts of a verse, nor of learning the underlying aesthetics.  So we can repeat a quick analysis:  Some of his verses are mere images; some are variations on old Japanese verses translated by Blyth; some are “modern” free verse poems with the brevity but not the substance of hokku or of Shiki’s “haiku.”

Sometimes Wright tries to be too “clever,” which is a failing of modern haiku in general, with its heavy emphasis on Western poetic notions:

In an old woodshed
The long points of icicles
Are sharpening the wind.

At times he strives too obviously and artificially for effect:

To see the spring sky,
A doll in a store window
Leans far to one side.

One could spend a great deal of time commenting on each verse in the book, looking for obvious antecedents in Blyth, noting where Wright, like almost the entire Western “haiku” movement, went wrong in unconsciously substituting his own preconceptions for the inherent aesthetics and techniques of the hokku and of the Shiki “haiku.”  Such an effort would be very enlightening in showing just how and how thoroughly Western haiku went astray in the middle of the 20th century, but it would also be rather disappointing and futile in that it is too late to correct Wright’s misperceptions and missteps, too late to give him the guidance he needed to rise to the level of old Japanese hokku instead of falling into common misunderstandings.

That is, fortunately, not the case with those still writing today.  But the problem in this case is finding those with the potential poetic intuition of a Richard Wright who are also humble enough to be willing to start over and do hokku the right way.

A great deal more could be said about the “haiku” of Richard Wright, and perhaps I shall have more to say when time permits.  But for now I shall only repeat that reading Wright’s “haiku” leaves one with the disappointing feeling of a potential unfulfilled due to lack of informed guidance, the same feeling one gets on reading the better examples of present day writers of “haiku,” who never quite understand what they are doing or why, and who consequently are always walking but never getting anywhere.



Long-time readers here will recall that I have discussed the issue of metaphor and simile and their relation (if any) to hokku.  I have pointed out that what readers — even presumably scholarly readers — often interpret as metaphor in hokku is better understood — at least in hokku as I teach it — as the more prevalent practice of the principle of internal reflection.  I have also said that though metaphor is not entirely absent from all old hokku, the best verses did not use it.

There is a great deal to be said about metaphor and simile, which have a long history in English literature and have been so often used that they seem a poetic crutch for which the laboring poet automatically reaches when in difficulty, and from this sentence alone one can see how common their use has become; I have just used a metaphor myself.

There are, then, times when a metaphor or simile may be helpful in prose or in poetry (though not in hokku), yet one feels, like Ogden Nash in his poem Very Like a Whale, that both are used to excess.  He tells us, half in jest, half serious:

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can’t seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else….
That’s the kind of thing that’s being done all the time by poets, from Homer to Tennyson;
They’re always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison.
How about the man who wrote,
Her little feet stole in and out like mice beneath her petticoat?
Wouldn’t anybody but a poet think twice
Before stating that his girl’s feet were mice?
Then they always say things like that after a winter storm
The snow is a white blanket.  Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a
six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of
unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

I have said in previous articles that simile in poetry — saying one thing is like another — draws the mind in two directions by presenting it with two different images.  To say, for example, that the rising crescent moon is like a ship of silver sailing up on the blue sea of heaven, detracts from the moon and the sky as they are, and brings in the image of a ship and of a sea, and the mind must combine these into a new image created by the original “real” image and its overlay.

That does not mean metaphors and similes are good or bad; it simply means, as I have said before, that one must use the right tool for the right task.  In hokku as I teach it, we keep a very strong focus of the mind, for which simile and metaphor act merely as a distraction.  In other kinds of poetry — well, we shall see.

There is much more to be said about metaphor and simile, but I will delay that for when I have more time.  So expect this brief posting to grow longer in the next few days.  I would like readers, meanwhile, to read the excerpt from the Nash poem and to think about the place (is there one, legitimately?) of metaphor and simile in poetry, and to a lesser extent, in prose.

It is worth considering, in the interim, how hokku generally goes for what Nash calls the “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the great contrasts between hokku and conventional poetry.  In fact the great discovery of people like Bashō was to find the poetry in such “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the things that makes hokku so unlike what people generally think of as poetry.



I often say that modern haiku, for all practical purposes, began in the middle of the 20th century as a result of the misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku by Western writers and academics.  They saw the hokku through the spectacles of what they already knew about Western poetry (particularly avant-garde poetry of the first half of the century) and notions of what it meant to be a poet, and that prevented them from seeing the hokku as it really was.

The consequence was that when Westerners began to write and teach their own interpretations of the hokku — which they called “haiku,” following Shiki’s neologism — what they created generally had little in common with the old hokku practiced from Bashō up to and including the “haiku” of Shiki except brevity.

In other words, modern haiku in English is the result of all the English-language haiku journals and anthologies and books written in the latter half of the 20th century, not the result of a careful study of the old hokku or even the first “Shiki” haiku.  It is largely a new Western verse form rather than a continuation of the old hokku.

That means, for all practical purposes, that most of what would-be writers of “haiku” were reading in the 20th century presented what was really — in my view — largely just the creation of the authors, and did not really represent the essentials of the old hokku or even of Shiki’s new “haiku.”

Of course it is obvious to historians that awareness of the hokku did not begin in the middle of the 20th century, but roughly half a century earlier, when the Western poets known as the Imagists were influenced by what they saw of the hokku in translation.  But they, too, misperceived the nature of the hokku, and their verses influenced by it are no more hokku than the Chinoiserie of 18th-century England is “real” Chinese art.

Here, for example, is an early (c. 1908) “Imagist” poem by Edward Storer, written, like the modern hokku, in three lines.  But there the similarities end:


Forsaken lovers,
burning to a chaste white moon,
Upon strange pyres of loneliness and drought.

This is simply the fantasy of the writer working overtime.  If we remember that the hokku expresses Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, we can see there is really nothing in this poem that is like the hokku except its brief, three-line form.  The content is entirely “Western poetry.”

Though the Imagists were influenced by the hokku, they completely misunderstood it; and that of course was repeated by those who actually began the modern haiku in earnest in the middle of the 20th century.

When we look at the early “pre-modern” Western poems influenced by Western misperception of the hokku, we can see precisely where the Western “poets” went wrong.  They did not understand the purpose of the hokku; they did not understand its seasonal context; they did not even understand its long-short structure.  They saw only that it was a brief presentation of an “image” of some kind, and so they proceeded to write verses such as these, by Ezra Pound.  I will present them here under my own headings:

Playing at being “Asian”:

O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.
(titled “Fan-piece: For her Imperial Lord)

Writing simile:

As cool as the pale wet leaves
of lily-of-the-valley
She lay beside me in the dawn.
(titled Alba)

Imposing inner fantasy on the outer object:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
(titled “In a Station of the Metro)

Of this latter verse, Pound wrote,

“In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”

In other words, Pound was speaking of the outward object (the faces in the Metro) transformed into an inner, subjective image (petals on a wet, black bough).  This has nothing to do with hokku, nor with the first “Shiki” haiku, which were hokku in all but name.

William Higginson completely misunderstood what Pound was doing; he wrote of this verse,

“…by revising the poem Pound turned an otherwise sentimental metaphor into a genuine haiku … This is a haiku that Shiki would have been proud to write.” (The Haiku Handbook)

In my view, it is precisely such gross misperceptions and misrepresentations of the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku by Higginson and other writers in the latter half of the 20th century that led them to create a “modern haiku” quite unlike the old hokku, and quite unlike the “Shiki” haiku.

But here is another Ezra Pound verse:

Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,
Crushed strawberries! Come, let us feast our eyes.
(titled L’Art, 1910)

This is what we might call a “color” verse, with an added comment by the poet.  Aside from the added comment at the end, it is essentially just a word-painting of color combinations.  And that, of course, takes us immediately to a very similar poem by William Carlos Williams, which again consists in essence of an assemblage of colors:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Where Pound puts his added (and superfluous) comment at the end of his verse, Williams puts his similarly superfluous comment at the beginning of the color composition to give the verse a pseudo-profundity.

Pound’s verse is simply the assemblage of green on white with strawberry red; Williams’ verse is simply the assemblage of red (enhanced by the rainwater) and white.  Yes, it is a red wheelbarrow, and yes, they are white chickens, but the objects are simply the vehicles for the transmission of color, as in the verse by Pound, in which his “Let us feast our eyes” is simply an attempt to tell the reader that his poem is all about color juxtapositions (plus the oddity of a “feast” including a poisonous pigment).

Williams’ poem is, for all practical purposes, a word-painting of colors, red and white.  Pound’s verse is also a word-painting of colors, arsenic green, white, and strawberry red.

We may recall at this point that Masaoka Shiki wrote a haiku about the falling of a red berry on the frost of the garden.  That verse is also a study in color (red on white), and seen thus it is outwardly similar to the red and white juxtaposition of Williams, with his red wheelbarrow and his white chickens.  But in this, Shiki’s hokku is atypical, though it still expresses a thing-event in the context of a season, which is not at all what the “wheelbarrow” poem of Williams does.  The principle behind them is quite different, and it was the failure to grasp this essential difference between the hokku and Western poetry that led to the rise of a modern haiku that has far more in common with Western notions of poetry and poets than it has or ever had with the old hokku or even with the “Shiki” haiku, which was still generally hokku in all but name.

And finally, if one looks at the “wheelbarrow” poem of Williams, it becomes obvious where the anti-capital letter, anti-punctuation tendency so prevalent in modern haiku originated.  It is just a relic of an experiment that was once considered “modern” — in the first half of the 20th century.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

The waters of spring —
Seen here
And seen there.

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

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

The lake ice —
It is melted
By the ripples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring begins.


Not long ago I wrote this:

“I began teaching hokku on the Internet in about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern ‘haiku’ — had distorted and perverted its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.”

How one comes to hokku will very often determine one’s attitude toward it.  Unfortunately the majority of people first experience it through books or sites about haiku — meaning that they get a very distorted picture of it.

As most readers here know by now, modern haiku is actually a new verse form created when Westerners, seeing the hokku for the first time, misunderstood and misperceived it in terms of what they already knew — the practice of poetry and ideas about poets current in the West in the 20th century.  Though some Westerners attempted (always unsucessfully) to imitate the hokku in the late 19th century, for all practical purposes we can say that modern haiku in America and Britain had its real beginning in the middle of the 20th century.

As already mentioned, Western haiku thus began as the unfortunate consequence of a misunderstanding.  People sometimes wonder how that was possible.  It is very simple to explain.

Here, for example, is the hokku most everyone has read in one translation or another, Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” verse:

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

To a Westerner reading that verse for the first time, it seems merely a pleasant little three-line poem.  And essentially that is what Western haiku writers mistook the hokku to be — just a little three-line poem that one could write however one wished.  That is, for all practical purposes, the most practical and applicable definition of a modern haiku today.  But that is not at all what the hokku was.

First of all, the Western reader would not know that Bashō’s verse was set in a definite season — springtime.  That is indicated by the presence of a frog.  So Western readers completely missed that hokku was SEASONAL verse — each hokku being set in a particular time of the year, with all of its associations.

Because of that oversight, most Western haiku began as non-seasonal verse.  One often had no idea at all when the haiku event depicted in the verse took place.

Second, most Americans, in the middle of the 20th century were accustomed to the notion that to be “modern,” poems had to use unconventional or minimal punctuation — or even no punctuation at all, and perhaps even no capital letters.  That is because some Western poets in the first half of the 20th century had experimented with such things.  For some peculiar reason, Western haiku writers thought that was the way the haiku should be written too, in order to appear “modern.”  Thus arose the bizarre notion that punctuation was “old fashioned,” when in reality punctuation had long been used in English for clarity and for shades of emphasis — exactly the kind of thing needed if one wanted to write hokku in English.

Then too, many Western writers of haiku did not realize that the old hokku deliberately had a “cut” that divided a verse into a long part and a short part.  Those who did sense that a cut was appropriate often used no punctuation at all to indicate where it was to be in the haiku, while others simply used a perfunctory hyphen, completely missing the purpose of punctuation as we use it in the English-language hokku.

Another element often overlooked by Western writers of haiku was that the old hokku had as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently, Western writers and teachers of haiku began writing and promoting verses that had nothing of Nature in them — verses about such things as freeways and television sets and elevators.  That is completely contrary to the practice and spirit of the old hokku, but of course once Western haiku teachers began re-making the hokku as they thought it should be, they decided they could do virtually anything they wished.  That is why modern haiku is today such a garbled mess of different and often quite contradictory practices.  Anyone could teach haiku as virtually anything one decided it should be.

One of the most damaging aspects of this re-invention of the hokku as “modern haiku” was that many people thought the haiku should be a “personal expression,” which of course is another mistaken notion picked up from Western poetry and misapplied to the hokku.  Consequently people began writing haiku about love affairs, emotional entanglements, sex, war, and various manifestations of violence.

Old hokku, by contrast, deliberately avoided topics such as violence, romance, and sex.  That is because the hokku was not intended to take us deeper into emotional and psychological attachments and desires.  Of course those who read hokku, not knowing this, simply began writing about whatever they wished.

These are only a few of the serious errors that arose when Westerners misinterpreted the hokku and began to create the modern haiku according to their own whims and desires.  So almost everyone who comes to the hokku through “haiku” books and “haiku” sites is going to end up with a very distorted notion of the hokku, and will carry a heavy load of haiku nonsense baggage that prevents the understanding and appreciation of hokku as it really should be at its best.

And of course I should not finish this brief discussion without stating the obvious — that when people talk about the “haiku” of Bashō, or of Buson, or of Issa, they are speaking both anachronistically and incorrectly.  None of these writers, nor any of the other writers of the old hokku, called what he or she wrote “haiku.”  They all called such a verse a hokku, within the wider practice of haikai.  The notion that Bashō and all the rest wrote “haiku” is simply a mistake perpetuated by Western writers of haiku who appropriated a term popularized in 20th-century Japan when the country was undergoing massive influence from the West.

Haiku today, in English and in other European languages, is a garbled, confused disaster.  One can easily see the reasons for that in how it began.  And that accounts for why there are so many different opinions about how the haiku should or can be written, and so much animosity in the modern haiku community over disagreements about form and content.

It is quite unfortunate that Westerners did not take the trouble to see what the hokku was really all about before they decided to re-invent it to fit their misconceptions.  Had they begun by knowing the principles and practice and aesthetics of the hokku, it is likely that there would have been far less enthusiasm for the degenerate mutations foisted off on the public as “modern haiku,” both in the 20th century and now in the 21st.



Here is a repeat of something I wrote some four years ago:

As readers have noticed, I like to teach using old hokku as examples — good old hokku for the most part, unless I am pointing out how not to write.

It is fortunate that hokku translate well; so well, in fact, that often the English translations are better as verses than the Japanese originals.  There are commonly poems so wedded to the original language that when translated they lose all energy and go flat.  Hokku are not like that.  The reason, no doubt, is that the effect of hokku is in the presentation of a strong sensory experience.  The emphasis is on substance over form, and hokku do not rely on such things as rhyme or even a stable rhythm, though of course in the original language of old hokku there tends to be a standard pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units, the result being a rhythm like that of the following lines, used purely to demonstrate that rhythm:

Would you like to go?
If I wanted I could go —
But I cannot now.

In other words, it has beats like this:


Of course such inherent rhythm is lost when hokku change language:

This road —
No one is on it;
The autumn evening.

That gives us this pattern of beats:


So it is a fact that in English we give little importance to retaining the 5/7/5 rhythm of the originals, because it would severely limit transmitting the verbal meaning in translation and it would have severe creative limits in composing original verses in English.  But we can say that once that original 5/7/5 rhythm standard is dropped, hokku generally transmit easily from language to language.

This ease with which hokku move from one language to another has, however, a drawback.  It is the same problem found in unstructured poetry in general, no matter how many lines may comprise it.  While the experience of reading a particular hokku may be memorable, the actual words are not.  It is in fact such “superfluities” of poetry as rhyme, rhythm, meter, alliteration and assonance that make a poem easy to remember.  This one drawback of hokku, if we may call it a drawback, may in fact be a major reason why hokku have so far not been taken very seriously in the English language, aside from their brevity and the unfortunate mediocrity that forms the bulk of what has come to be known as “haiku” in the English-speaking world.

Harold Henderson, in his An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday & Company, 1958), actually translated old hokku as rhymed verse.  We can see in his translations the benefits and hazards of trying to do so:

How cool the breeze:
The sky is filled with voices —
Pine and cedar trees.

That is easy to remember because of the rhyme — much easier in fact than a more literal rendering:

A cool breeze;
The sky is filled with
The sound of pines.*

As Henderson’s translations show, rhyming hokku generally requires a certain distortion of the original.  Commonly words must be added that go beyond the original meaning.  And Henderson found he could not translate all hokku — even his favorites — into rhyme, as is evidenced by the numerous examples of unrhymed hokku in his book for which no suitable rhyme was found.  That is no doubt one reason why, in later writing on the subject, Henderson abandoned rhyme, which was, after all, originally merely an attempt to make hokku look more like traditional English-language poetry.

But hokku, as I have often said, is not really poetry as we commonly think of it.  And specifically, it is not a poetry of the mouth or the ear.  It is, rather, a verse of the eye.  Hokku are best read silently, whereas poetry may with benefit be read aloud.

Poetry is the verse of the tongue and the ear, Cerdd Davod as it is called in that most mouth-and-ear-oriented language of poetry, Welsh — the art of the tongue, or as Twm Morys so well puts it, “tongue-craft.”

Strange to say, verse of the mouth and ear can have an effect that transcends its content, and ease of remembrance is just one aspect of that effect in which even the mediocre is remembered, and perhaps even transfigured.

That was the experience of the Welsh-language poet Twm Morys when he deliberately set out to write an example poem in English of the Welsh cywydd form.  The result was My First Love was a Plover, which Morys readily admits was simply “nonsense” written to exemplify the outer requirements of the Welsh verse form.  The form was his goal, not substance.

The result, however, was quite unanticipated.  Morys writes of it,

Now as I was the author of it, I happened to know at the time that this cywydd, though absolutely correct according to the rules of strict meter, was also a load of nonsense.  But it had an immediate, sometimes very emotional, effect on audiences.  I now realize that it is the most profound poem I have ever written.

See for yourself.  you may read My First Love was a Plover at:

Click to access morys.pdf

Go to page 114.

After reading this verse we can easily see why the power of sound is linked with magic in old stories.  We feel the effect of spoken words transcending their literal meanings.

Where does all this leave us with hokku?  Right back with the statement that hokku is not poetry as we conventionally understand it.  Hokku is not tongue-craft but rather the recording and transmission of a sensory experience.

Is it any wonder, then, that English-language poets have paid hokku little attention,  and that what attention it has received  has been as the mutated haiku — a Western hybrid mixed with Western notions of poetry?  In hokku the substance is more important than the form, and that is why the form itself — that is the actual words — are so quickly forgotten.  In poetry the form — the words — may rise higher than the substance and the sounds of the words have an effect transcending what may be the utter simplicity of their meaning.

I know who owns these woods, but his house is in the village.  He won’t see me stopping here to watch snow fill his woods.”

That is substance over form.  It may be “poetic” in a sense, but more often it is not, and that is one reason why there are so many very mediocre “haiku” and even mediocre attempts at hokku.

But here is substance transfigured by form, though the form is simple:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

That is of course Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

All of this simply shows us once more that hokku is not poetry as we usually think of it.  What must be repeated and remembered is that in hokku, the poetry is not in the words but in the sensory experience conveyed by the words.  And like the raft abandoned when the other shore is reached, we quickly forget the words of a hokku, though not the experience.  Poetry allows us to retain the words, which may even transcend and transfigure the experience, if experience there was in fact to begin with.  Is one “better” than the other?  Better for what?

Hokku does what it is intended to do, and it does it well.  It is our problem if we persist in confusing it with poetry.  And poetry does what it is intended to do.  Poetic methods can make the mediocre memorable even when its techniques are flawed:

Wash it once,
It lasts for months,
With Duro plastic starch.

Or it can work its sound magic on the depths of human experience, as in Hopkins’ lines:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

To like hokku does not mean that we must not like poetry.  But we must be able to recognize and understand the differences between hokku and poetry or else we shall be in the same position as those multitudes in the English-language haiku establishment who long ago misinterpreted hokku as being like conventional poetry, and who then, through combining the outer form of hokku with the substance of Western poetry, erroneously created what generally passes for the English-language “haiku.”  That is an error we must not make in writing original hokku in English.


* The Japanese word koe, approximating “voice” in English, is often used in hokku where English would use “sound” or even another word such as “cry” or “chirp,” as in the koe of a cricket” or the koe of pines in the wind.



Here  — for convenience — I have combined and slightly revised several earlier articles explaining how Western haiku enthusiasts thoroughly confused hokku and haiku in the 20th century, completely misunderstanding not only hokku but its connection to “Zen,” and thoroughly misleading the public in the process by inaccurate and anachronistic use of terminology.  Unfortunately many in the modern haiku community continue to promote these fictions and misrepresentations even in the 21st century, and one must repeatedly correct their errors so that an unsuspecting public will not be taken in by them.  The originals of these articles will be found separately in the archives.  The linking of several related articles together here accounts for the repetition of certain key points.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, Blyth chose to put aside the historically correct term for the subject — hokku — and used instead the revisionist term then current in his Japan of the mid 1900s — “haiku.”  Henderson, a lesser light, did the same.

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

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

Harold Henderson made the same disastrous mistake, suggesting that it would be the “poets” themselves who would decide how the “haiku” (by which Henderson, like Blyth, really meant the hokku) would be written in English.  Both Blyth and Henderson failed to realize that Westerners were totally unprepared for the task, having virtually no understanding of hokku aesthetics and how they were to be applied in verse.

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

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

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

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

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

All of this is merely a lead-in to some further words on James W. Hackett.  Previously I wrote that Hackett’s efforts to turn back time to a fictional “golden age” of Western haiku are likely to have no impact at all on the modern haiku community because that community will, as a whole, consider Hackett merely antiquated in his views, a human telegraph lingering on in the cell phone age, bypassed by time and events.    I pointed out that haiku in the West never had a golden age, because it was distorted from its very beginnings. That needs a further bit of explanation.

If the West had paid close and studious attention to the works of R. H. Blyth, it would have been possible for a Western hokku to quickly arise, even if mislabeled “haiku.”  But as we have seen, those who set the course of the Western haiku movement by writing books and journals and founding societies paid virtually no attention to Blyth’s aesthetic commentaries on hokku; instead they created a new Western verse form under the name “haiku.”

Those reading editions of such influential works as The Haiku Anthology by Cor van den Heuvel, which began appearing in the early 1970s, will see that this sleep of reason quickly brought forth monsters.  Even from its beginning, Western haiku diverged not only from hokku but even from the very conservative “haiku” written and advocated in Japan by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century, which was often hokku in all but name.  But then van den Heuvel  was involved with the Haiku Society of America, which in my view bears heavy responsibility for leading haiku off on erratic and subjective paths that took it quickly away both from the hokku and from the “Shiki-style” haiku, furthering the “aesthetic devolution” lamented by Hackett.

But back to Hackett.  It should not be surprising that devotees of modern haiku view him as spider-webby, dusty, and outmoded.  He did, after all, correspond with R. H. Blyth, which means he got his start at the very beginning of the popularization of  haiku in the West in the middle of the 20th century.  And even though Blyth himself gave Hackett a rather double-edged compliment, on the one hand calling his early verses “excellent” while on the other simultaneously writing that “more often there is too much ostensive, that is, overt thought” in them (History of Haiku, vol. 2, page 362), nonetheless that mention of Hackett by Blyth himself (along with inclusion of a few of Hackett’s verses, which became separately available in print in the West) puts Hackett in the category of the three first founders of Western haiku (a fourth writer at that time, Kenneth Yasuda, was far less influential, though reprints of his book The Japanese Haiku are still available).

Unfortunately it is not a happy society, because few have been so historically noted and so little heeded in the modern haiku movement as the triumvirate of Blyth, Henderson, and on a secondary level, Hackett.

My own view of Hackett’s “haiku” is that (as Blyth himself admitted with his backhanded compliment), Hackett did not quite get the aesthetics of the hokku.  Hackett was impressed with the “Zen” aspect of the hokku, but unfortunately this sometimes resulted in verses tainted too heavily with mid-20th century Western romanticization of Zen — a little like biscuits with too much baking powder, in which the effect should be there, but not the obvious taste.  And, as Blyth wrote, Hackett’s verses all too often have too much subjective intellectualization, too much “thinking” in them.

But really, that is the worst one can legitimately say of Hackett.  When one reads his essay bemoaning what haiku has become, one sees that if readers in the modern haiku community were to follow the more sensible of his suggestions, haiku would be reformed for the better, at least as far as its relation to the hokku.

That is not, however, going to happen.  Haiku was created in the West as a self-evolving kind of verse dependent on the whim of the individual writer for its form and standards, and Western writers — heavily invested in the poet as public ego — are not about to give that up for a nostalgic view of a past that never was, simply because it is presented to them by someone who wrote letters to Blyth over half a century ago.

In fact the modern haiku community as a whole has so little respect for Blyth at present that even its leading pundits regularly enjoy presenting his ideas as justly fallen into the dustbin of history.

It should be obvious, then, that I see Hackett’s attempt to reform haiku as futile, though not misguided.  Haiku is not hokku.  Haiku never was hokku, except perhaps in its earliest days in Japan when Shiki wrote his own brand of hokku and simply mislabeled it “haiku.”

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

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

All of which, fortunately, has not the slightest effect on our practice of the hokku as a continuation in the modern world of the old hokku tradition of Japan.  Hokku never devolved precisely because it maintains the essentials of the aesthetics and principles and techniques of the old hokku, though presenting them in modern language to the modern world.

The student of hokku, happily, is not faced with the subjective chaos and fragmentation so obvious in modern haiku.  But then hokku and haiku have gone their separate ways, and have today quite different approaches both to aesthetics and to life.

One cannot, therefore, say that James Hackett is wrong in wanting to return haiku to an aesthetic closer to his own, but one can be reasonably certain it is never going to happen.  Fortunately, for those who do not want to be taken on the wild, ego-stimulating, argumentative ride of modern haiku societies and journals and Internet forums, there is still the peace, tranquility, and closeness to Nature of the hokku, ever old, ever new.

It will be obvious to the reader by this point that I have a very low general opinion of modern haiku.  Nonetheless, I feel one should accept reality, realizing that it exists as a new category of Western verse created in the 20th century, — if a vague and ill-defined category manipulated largely by amateurs, dabblers, and the ego-infatuated,  and one should admit that it has an appeal for most Westerners that hokku simply does not have.  That is because it demands so little of both writer and reader.  So the haiku fits well into a society fascinated by the disposable and the shoddy.

That is because the goals of modern Western society are in general so remote from the Nature-centered, spiritual goals of the hokku that most people have no attraction to the kind of verses written by Onitsura and Bashō.  Like Blyth, and no doubt like Hackett, I see this as a serious flaw in modern society, something to be lamented instead of celebrated.  It is symptomatic of the serious sickness of spirit that plagues modern culture the world over.

That is why I hold with Blyth that in our present-day world, the Way of Hokku is a “hard way and a narrow way, and few there be that find it.”  But that is only because few there be that want to find it.

Let no one think I am criticizing James W. Hackett here.  I think the modern haiku community would vastly better itself by heeding his Jeremiad.  I may disagree with some details of his reform program for haiku and his aesthetics, yet I applaud his overall intention.  But I also feel quite certain that nothing is going to happen as a result of his efforts — that he will be, like Blyth and Henderson, virtually ignored by the majority of the Western haiku community (and so far, since Hackett published his article, that has in fact proven to be the result).  Hokku and haiku are likely to remain two quite different and separate and ever more widely diverging kinds of verse.

Rather than wasting time on trying to reverse history, it is better just to live a life of hokku and to let others do what they wish, which they always have done in any case and will continue to do.  Ultimately, one changes the world only by changing one’s self.

Over the years I have written about how hokku was hijacked in the middle of the 20th century by the haiku movement in the West.  One could write a sizable volume on the history of how that took place and which prominent names in 20th century (and some 21st) haiku were involved.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong in the appearance of a new verse form.  But one can and should legitimately object when a new verse form is misrepresented to the public as a continuation of an old verse form, which is precisely what the self-made pundits of modern haiku undertook from the 1960s onward. It is only recently that the public has begun to catch on to the fact that they have been had, that they are the victims of revisionism — that modern haiku is not a continuation of the old hokku as written by Taigi and Bashō and Onitsura and all the rest; instead it is a new verse form created out of the misperceiving and misrepresentation of hokku by writers in the 20th century.

Admittedly the public at large could hardly care less about all this, because numerically few are interested in modern haiku and even fewer in genuine hokku.  But for those of us who do care, it is very important to call attention to those writers in the 21st century who persist, for whatever reason, in inaccurately labeling old hokku as “haiku” and who continue to promulgate the fiction that what they are teaching continues the tradition of the old writers of hokku.

If one wants to learn modern haiku, one is perfectly free to pick up hints and tips from any number of books and Internet fora and blogs.  The range is vast and the standards so loose and flexible that one can write virtually anything one wishes and present it to the world as haiku as long as it is reasonably brief.

Hokku is quite a different matter.  Hokku has very definite principles and standards, and if one wishes to learn how to write it, one must thoroughly understand the aesthetics and construction of the old hokku written from the 16th to the 20th centuries.  It is not complicated, but it does involve a thorough re-thinking of one’s notions, a dropping of a great deal of inaccurate and unnecessary baggage picked up over the years from the misrepresentation of hokku as “haiku” by authors from the mid-20th century onward.

It requires  a re-orientation (no pun intended) of the writer toward a verse form that takes one away from the self and into Nature, a form that pays little heed to the ego of the writer or to what is commonly known as “self-expression.”  I sometimes introduce people to hokku through articles with titles such as “Hokku is Not What You Think it Is,” and that is quite true.  Most people really have no idea at all what hokku is, and that is not surprising after half a century of misperception and misrepresentation of it by propagandistic enthusiasts of modern haiku.

So what is hokku?  Read the articles in the archive on this site and you will begin to get a much clearer and more accurate picture than you have likely ever had from reading misinformation about it in books that incorrectly and anachronistically misrepresent it as “haiku.”

I have written many times that the haiku did not exist until near the end of the 19th century, when it was “created” by a Japanese failed novelist, the journalist generally known today as Masaoka Shiki, or simply Shiki.  That is an historical fact, and easily verifiable by anyone willing to expend a minimum of effort in research.  Though the word “haiku” existed in Japanese long before Shiki, it had a different meaning than he attached to it.

What that means is that everyone — whether in books or magazines or on the Internet — who talks about the “haiku” of Bashō or the “haiku” of Buson or the “haiku” of Taigi is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically, spreading the misunderstanding and confusion that began in English and other European languages in the 20th century — particularly in the mid-20th century, when the foundational groups that gave rise to modern haiku were being formed.

As I have mentioned before, it is noteworthy that one such group — the Haiku Society of America — even put out a considerable propaganda effort to convince the editors of dictionaries and other reference works to declare the term hokku “obsolete,” as though a mere handful of people forming a little club could invalidate history, making Bashō somehow a writer of “haiku” when, by contrast, Bashō always referred to what he wrote as HOKKU, within the wider context of haikai.

But I am merely repeating myself.  What the average person needs to know now is what that change in terminology — begun by the revisionism of Shiki in Japan — means about hokku today and its relationship — if any — to haiku.

To understand that, we have to go back to the time of Shiki to see just what he did, and what resulted from what he did.  In doing so we shall dispel a bit of myth and shall remain with the facts.

What did Shiki do to hokku?  Very little, actually, but that very little was to have immense consequences.  What he did was precisely this:

1.  Shiki removed hokku from its centuries-long position as the first and opening verse of a haikai verse sequence.  He did this because he did not personally consider such collaborative verses “literature.”

2.  Shiki decided to call this independent verse form “haiku,” not “hokku.”

That’s it.

Looked at objectively, Shiki really only made only one and one-half rather than two major changes, because hokku appearing independently were nothing remotely new, but really a very old practice.  In the old haikai, hokku could appear in at least three ways:  As part of a haikai sequence, independently, or embedded in other writings such as the travel journals of Bashō.  So to say that Shiki began the practice of presenting the hokku independently is simply an historical error.  What we can say is that Shiki began presenting the hokku independently under his new denomination “haiku.”

We are really left with only one major thing that Shiki did.  He made it impossible for the haiku to be written in the context of a linked verse (renga) sequence.

If we look at Shiki’s own “haiku,” we find that what he really did was just to take the hokku — which already could appear independently — and rename it “haiku” for his own purposes.  Shiki’s verses are generally acceptable as hokku, which shows how little he really did and how essentially conservative his verses were.

Shiki kept the connection with Nature — essential to hokku.  He also kept the connection with the seasons — also essential to hokku.

Aside from this, what Shiki did was simply to initiate a trend of confusion that has continued up to the present.

It is true that when compared to older hokku, Shiki’s “haiku” are often shallow, and there is a particular reason for that, in fact two main reasons.  First, Shiki was an agnostic.  Old hokku was very much influenced by the “philosophy” of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly that of the Zen sect.  That is not surprising.  Zen aesthetics are the basis of all the major traditional contemplative arts in Japan, whether hokku, the tea ceremony, gardening, flower arranging, calligraphy, even the Nō drama.  That is why if one understands the aesthetic principles behind just one of these arts, one understands them all.

In Shiki’s case, his agnosticism tended to manifest itself as a certain existential bleakness, which we find particularly in verses directly relating to his chronic illness.  Seen over the longer term, however, his agnosticism led eventually to a separation between “haiku” and spirituality, something we find emphasized in later 20th-century writers in English who declare either that there is no Zen-“haiku” connection or  that such a connection is overrated or overstated.  One often finds such writers quoting this or that modern Japanese, who when asked about the connection between “Zen” and haiku, simply look puzzled or say there is no connection.  What does one expect them to say? Most modern Japanese know as little about the aesthetic foundations of the old hokku as modern Americans know about the influence of the Enlightenment on the founding documents of the United States.

But the fact is that it was modern haiku that decided to separate from “Zen,” for reasons best known to those who made that decision.  Of course by “Zen” here, I mean non-dogmatic, unitary spirituality in general, and particularly the aesthetic influence of that spirituality that manifested in hokku.

The result, then, is that there is a large segment of modern haiku that has separated and isolated itself from spirituality.  That is a notable difference from the old hokku, in which its aesthetics were a manifestation of the underlying foundation of Mayahana Buddhism, including as well Daoist and Confucianist influences, and even a bit of animism.

There is a second and not unrelated reason for the shallowness of many of Shiki’s hokku.  Shiki was strongly influenced by the Western literary and technological innovations that were flooding into Japan in his time.  One of these was the plein-air art of Europe, nature sketches “from life,” so to speak.  It made such a great impression on him that he took it as the guiding motif for the new “haiku,” and called it shasei, sketching from life.

The result was that many of Shiki’s “haiku” are essentially illustrations in words, brief word-sketches of this or that scene.  As such, they tend often to be merely two-dimensional, and lack the depth and profundity of the old hokku, which had a wider aesthetic.  I often say that many of Shiki’s hokku are like the style of block prints made popular by such Japanese artists as Yoshida and Hasui — pleasant enough in their own way, but still illustrations.

In spite of that, if his changes had not been taken farther by those who came after him, we would still consider much of what Shiki wrote to be hokku — shallow and illustrative hokku on the whole perhaps, but still not radical enough to remove him entirely from the category.  We would see him as just another writer of hokku, but with a peculiar personal aesthetic.

That brings us to Shiki’s real significance in this matter.  Shiki questioned the old hokku tradition and its values, but aside from imposing his own title “haiku” on it, he remained, as we have seen, rather conservative.  But the mere fact that he felt enabled, as an individual, to take control of the hokku tradition and to bend it to his personal will, nonetheless implied the right of the individual to change hokku however one wished, and given that this occurred in a period of great cultural change in Japan, its effects were tremendous. Shiki was not even dead before one of his students — Hekigodō — asserted his own right to change the new haiku even more, and he continued until his verses were so radical and different that they had very little to do with the old hokku.  As haiku developed it became acceptable to drop the connection with the seasons, with Nature, and for all practical purposes, haiku became a new and different verse form, which is what it remains in most cases today.

Not surprisingly, what Westerners took from all this was that anyone could write “haiku” any way they wished.  That is still the creed of most modern haiku enthusiasts today.  And so haiku has become whatever anyone wants it to be.  As I have said before, something that becomes anything becomes in essence nothing at all.   That is why haiku today is impossible to clearly define.  It is simply too varied and fragmented, and it continues to vary and to fragment.  That also is one of the chief reasons why the modern haiku community is so filled with bickering and dissension.

It is not surprising that this is what has become of haiku, because in the modern West, “poetry” is seen as a form of self-expression — often of rebellion — which is why “haiku” was taken up by the “Beat Generation” in the 20th century.  Of course by then it was already confused with the old hokku, and people simply could not tell the difference because they had never properly learned or understood the aesthetics of the old hokku.  When someone told them that “haiku” was what Bashō and the other old masters of Japan wrote, they simply and naïvely accepted that.

It is very important to recognize that the hokku was fundamentally misunderstood and misperceived from its very first appearance in the West in the 19th century.  The early Western poets — the Imagists among them — simply saw in the hokku a reflection of their misperceptions both of Asian culture and of its literature.  Because hokku was an aesthetic blank for them, when they looked at it, it was like looking in a mirror; they saw their own faces — their own ideas about poets and poetry and the mysterious East — staring back at them.

That fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of hokku has been perpetuated in the modern haiku community right up to the present.  In fact as I have said before, so pervasive were the misconceptions about the history and nature of hokku that when I first began teaching that Bashō wrote hokku, not “haiku,” the reaction of the modern haiku community in general was first disbelief, then anger.  Amazingly, most had never even heard the word “hokku” before I rasied the issue.  One would have thought the anger would have been directed at those who had so misled them.  But there are still no doubt those in modern haiku who cannot forgive me for pointing out that they are not successors of Bashō, and that what they had picked up from the writings of 20th-century haiku pundits had more to do with the personal preferences of those self-made “authorities” than with anything practiced prior to the 20th century.

Today — at least — people in modern haiku are at last beginning to get the message that Bashō did not write haiku, nor did all the others before Shiki.  And they are beginning to realize that what most of them are writing stems more from American and European experimentation and ideas in the latter half of the 20th century than it does with old hokku or even the haiku of Shiki.

Once people begin to realize that “haiku” is an inaccurate and anachronistic and mistaken term when applied to the hokku tradition, and once they begin to realize that what nearly all the haiku teachers and authorities of the 20th century were teaching had little to do with Bashō and the entire old hokku tradition, then they can begin to see things realistically.  They can begin to learn what hokku really is, as opposed to its ersatz form, modern haiku.

Seen realistically, the modern haiku tradition in general has virtually nothing to do with all that was written prior to Shiki, or even — as we have seen — with what was written as “haiku” by Shiki himself.  Any verse form that abandons Nature, that abandons the connection with the seasons, that abandons the essentials and aesthetics of the old hokku,  is neither hokku nor even what Shiki meant by “haiku” when he brought it into being near the beginning of the 20th century.  Instead, modern haiku is for the most part a new Western brief verse form with remarkably fluid boundaries, and should be recognized as such.  The notion that it has anything to do do with Bashō or haikai or hokku  other than as an offshoot created through misunderstanding and misperception of the original will finally be recognized.

I must, however, add one disclaimer.  There are a few individuals in modern haiku today that do maintain some relation to the old hokku, if not in name.  Generally these are people who, though writing haiku, have been particularly influenced by pre-Shiki hokku.  Some, influenced by Japanese haiku of the 20th century, follow aesthetics not quite those of the old hokku — there may be too much intellection or striving for “poetic” effect — and their verses tend to be like the conservative haiku style of the 20th-century Japanese haiku writer Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959).  In many cases, these individuals are still worlds away from much that is written as modern haiku, and are sometimes more akin to the conservative haiku of Shiki — thus removed from, but not as isolated from the old hokku as, modern haiku in general.

As for the rest, it is as I have said.  Modern haiku has in general virtually nothing in common with the old hokku but brevity, and sometimes not even that.

Now what is the point in saying all this?  Is it perhaps just to irritate modern haiku enthusiasts?  Not at all.  The reason I take the time to write this — apart from historical accuracy — is simply that in order to learn hokku, one must distinguish it from haiku.  Hokku is something quite different, with its own aesthetics, techniques, and principles.  These are impossible to learn if one is constantly mistaking it for haiku.

Once it is understood and recognized that hokku and haiku are generally two different things, individuals may then choose to write either or neither.  But at least they will be making a more informed decision than those who have never learned to distinguish the two.

Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

Haiku today — as distinct from hokku — is another matter.  There are some Zen-influenced writers of haiku, but in general modern haiku is completely removed from Zen, and in fact some writers and figures in the modern haiku community actually prefer that it be divorced completely from Zen and any kind of spirituality.  In this they differ radically from present day adherents of the hokku tradition, who regard non-dogmatic spirituality as inseparable from hokku.  Modern writers of hokku thus maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began — to Zen as meditative absorption.  That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.

Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself, he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called “haikai” renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of our hokku.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing our kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live by its standards, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence, and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet in about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had distorted and perverted its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and it is that which gives it its particular clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Leaves
2.  Wild geese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



R. H. Blyth remarks that “only in Japan can we find hundreds of ‘poems’ written on the subject of heat.”  That he puts “poems” in quotes is significant, and indicates — as I always tell students — that we should not confuse what we are accustomed to think of as poetry with hokku.  For the most part, hokku is nothing at all like conventional Western poetry.   We may accurately describe hokku — following Blyth — as “poetry-sensation, the sensation perceived poetically.”

Now sensation means simply an experience of one or more of the five senses — taste, touch, smell hearing, and seeing.  Heat and cold fall under touch, given that they are our contact with the presence or absence of heat.  So please note, dear readers, that there is a poetry of the sensations, and that poetry is precisely as Blyth describes it — “the sensation perceived poetically.” And that is what we find in hokku.

Now it should be obvious to those with some knowledge of English poetry that there is precious little in it that can in any way equate with this notion — that sensation is in itself poetic.  Yet there is poetry in cold, and poetry in heat.  Not the poetry of playing with words, of being clever in verse, but in the sensation itself when perceived by a human.

It was the genius of the Japanese — of the writers of hokku — that they realized this, thus the large numbers of hokku on heat and cold, on each separately, and on the meeting of the two.

There is a woman’s poetry of heat (Sono-jo):

The child on my back,
Playing with my hair;
The heat!

There is a crabby man’s poetry of heat (Shingi):

He says nothing
To anyone who comes;
The heat!

There is the unfortunate woman’s poetry of heat (Yayū):

The prostitute
Sells her sweaty body;
The heat!

There is the laborer’s poetry of heat (Shiki):

In the fisherman’s hut,
The smell of dried fish;
The heat!

There is the (mistreated) animal’s poetry of heat (Chōsō):

Dressing him,
The monkey gets sulky;
The heat!

One could go on and on, but I will stop with Hyakuri’s

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

How very different in method from the similar English excerpt from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge):

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Let’s look again at Hyakuri’s hokku:

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

Heat is yang.  The ebbing of the tide is yin.  Something unmoving, in this case the ship, is also yin.  In nature we find that paradoxically, yang tends to create yin.  In the desert we find cacti, which are watery and yin on the inside, just as fruits in the heat of Hawai’i are also yin.  That is the effect we get in this verse.  The great heat is manifesting itself in the unmoving yin of the immobile ship, and we feel it also in the ebb tide — not as a cause-effect occurrence, but just because of the “weak” yin feeling in the tide.

One of the most important realizations the beginning student of hokku can make is that the distinctiveness of hokku is in its “poetry-sensation,” as it enables us to experience “the sensation perceived poetically.”



Recently I had a pleasant dinner with a long-time friend.  As we sat, we looked through an exhibit catalog of student work, the work being paintings in the Chinese manner.

There were two styles — the spontaneous, which was largely black and white or with sometimes minimal added color, and the elaborate, which often utilized very striking and brilliant colors.  We discussed which were good, which were not so good, and why.

It was obvious that we had to use different criteria for the different styles.  In the spontaneous style, one looks for strength and fluidity and movement in brush strokes.  But in the elaborate style, one must be more careful, because the eye is automatically drawn by the bright colors, and line becomes more formal.  A slight error, and the painting degenerates into stiffness and garishness.  In such paintings, one not only looks for the absence of flatness in color, but one also looks for “life” in the eye of a parrot, in the turn of head and lift of leg of a rooster.

In a way, the two styles of painting are somewhat like Western poetry compared to hokku.  Just as in the elaborate style the eye can be misled by the brilliance of color, in poetry one can be led astray by clever phrasing and the flash of unusual wording.  But one must look beyond and through these, at the “eye” of the poem, to see if it contains the glint of life, or if its elements are merely assembled and stuck on, like cut-out photos pasted into a collage.

In hokku, however, we are looking at the bare bones, like the rocks of a stony mountain, or the rush of a mountain rivulet.  It is all in the elements and in the movement, all in the immediate experience, and if a hokku fails in that, it fails as miserably as a painting with crudity and awkwardness of line.



A summer hokku:

Leaves suddenly appear
On the paper screen.

This too is a verse requiring a small intuitive leap.  Why would leaves suddenly appear on a paper screen?  Because the sun has just risen, casting shadows of plants onto the east side of the screen; and the observer is behind the screen, and sees them as they suddenly appear, dark silhouettes on the paper, surrounded by translucent light.

That of course uses “harmony of contrast” — the bright Yang light of the rising sun, and the Yin shadows cast on the Yang white paper screen.



Etsujin wrote:

How serenely they fall
When the time comes —
Poppy flowers.

That is a “statement” hokku.  A “statement” hokku makes a simple, true observation about something; it tells us something we already know but did not know we knew until we read the verse.  We must be careful to distinguish such a remark from just commentary or elaboration, in which personal views may enter into the matter.  The remark in a statement hokku should be something obviously true, about which there can be no controversy.

In technique, note how this verse in English uses the “double subject.”  By “double subject,” we mean that the hokku first introduces the subject one way — with either a pronoun or a noun — and then goes on to finish by repeating the subject using the other term.  If it begins with a pronoun, it continues with a noun; if it begins with a noun, it continues with a pronoun.  Look again:

How serenely THEY fall
When the time comes —

“They” (pronoun) and “poppy flowers” (noun) both refer to the same subject, thus the name “repeated subject.”  This is very handy when writing hokku in English.

We should also note that this verse could easily be used as an “occasion” hokku.  An “occasion” hokku is a verse written for a specific occasion — as a greeting, as a parting, on a birth, or on a death, etc.

The characteristic of an “occasion” hokku is that it must be equally meaningful when NOT applied to an occasion as when applied.  For example, we see that this makes a quite good hokku without application to any occasion.  But it would also make a very appropriate and meaningful hokku on the calm passing of a loved one.  So an “occasion” hokku must work well when applied to the specific occasion and when applied to no occasion.  By “occasion” we mean an event in human life.



Old hokku sometimes included historical, literary, or cultural allusions that make them very difficult for modern English-language readers to understand.  As I have already explained, we say that such verses “Do not travel well.”  That means they require so much explanation even after translation that any strength that might have been in the hokku is largely lost.  It is like having to explain a joke after one has told it.  Nearly all the effect is gone.

And of course many such allusive hokku were not very good to begin with.  Nonetheless, when the average Westerner reads them, completely unfamiliar with the background to such verses, the likelihood of misunderstanding becomes very high.

As we have seen, from the late 19th century and all through the 20th and even into the 21st century, most Westerners have completely misunderstood the hokku, and have seen it through their own colored glasses, tinted to make it seem like the Western poetry with which they are already familiar.

One such allusive verse by Bashō is:

Tsuki izuku    kane wa shizumeru   umi no soko
Moon where?  bell wa sunken       sea   ‘s   bottom

Where is the moon?
The bell has sunk
To the bottom of the sea.

A Western enthusiast reading this without the context of hokku (I won’t name him) thought this an example of imaginative surrealism in Bashō — that Bashō just “made up” a fanciful verse.  As I always say, Westerners just misinterpret hokku in terms of what they already know — or think they know.

Actually, however, Bashō is not being surreal or exhibiting a wild imagination; he is referring to an historical event, one of many that took place during the gruesome and violent political history of Japan.  Without going into detail, there was a military defeat and suicides at a beach, and a large bell associated with the event sank into the sea.  From that alone we can see that what we find in the verse is not surrealism — just historical allusion.

In our practice of hokku we do not much care for such things.  I tend to discourage allusion in hokku because it demands a background that many do not have; and further, because it often detracts from the sensory experience of the hokku and takes us into intellectualism.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that historically it was sometimes found in hokku, and that numbers of old verses cannot be fully understood without recognizing such allusions.

But from our perspective, what interests in this hokku (even though it is not a very good hokku) is something else.  Let’s look at it again:

Where is the moon?
The bell has sunk
To the bottom of the sea.

If you are a long- time reader here and have been absorbing what is taught, it should dawn on you that this is a hokku using what we call “harmony of similarity.”  That means a verse combining things that are similar in some way, even if only in feeling.  In this verse we have two kinds of similarity:

1.  Similarity of absence:  the moon is absent, the bell is absent.
2.  Similarity of shape:  the moon is round, the bell (which in the story of this verse is turned upside down in the sand at the sea bottom) is also round (its basal opening is round).

That does not mean we should imitate such verses in their use of allusion, because that is not something that fits our approach to hokku; nor should our verses require explanation.  Even to understand the second similarity, it helps to know that divers tried to retrieve the sunken bell, but because it was upside-down in the sand on the sea floor, they could not.  We can, however, keep in mind and use when appropriate the “harmony of similarity.”

The average Western reader, however, ignorant of the allusion and of the technique alike, will likely end up with some confused notion of what the verse is all about — perhaps even describing it (quite inaccurately) somewhat as the fellow mentioned earlier did — as imaginative and surreal.



Kitō wrote:

A summer shower;
The exhausted horse
Comes back to life

I always see the muscles of the fatigued horse begin twitching with life shortly after the first drops of cool rain strike it.

We feel the sudden energy of the falling summer rain in the sudden renewed energy of the horse — activity in the rain, activity in the horse, so superficially one might think this verse exhibits harmony of “likeness.”  Well, superficially, it does.

However, there is something more to it.  Things exposed to a Yin environment over time tend to be Yang in nature; things exposed to a Yang environment over time tend to be Yin in nature.

Take, for example, the climate of Hawai’i, which is very warm, very Yang.  The fruits that grow there are very Yin, very sweet and cooling.  And people who live in a very Yang environment over countless centuries, such as Africa or the South Pacific, tend to develop “Yin”- colored skin, that is, dark skin, while those people who live in a very “Yin” environment such as Norway or Ireland tend to develop “Yang” -colored skin — that is, light skin (dark is Yin, light is Yang)

The best quality ginseng — a tonic root that is very “Yang” in herbal medicine — grows in the coldest mountains of North Korea, a very “Yin” environment.

How does all of that apply to Kitō’s verse?  Well, the horse is exhausted by the Yang heat of summer and activity.  The Yin rain refreshes the creature, and as a consequence he returns to his Yang, energetic state.  So we can see that though the initial appearance of this verse is one of harmony of similarity, it is really showing us harmony of difference as the Yin rain brings about a Yang reaction in the horse.

We also learn from this that Yin and Yang are not absolutes; they are always working in relation to one another, always causing changing states and effects in their countless interactions.



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.