Bringing the hokku back from near oblivion is a long and unsteady process.  It was nearly lost completely in the 20th century.  Part of that is due to historical confusion, and part is due to the misguided efforts of enthusiasts of the Western “haiku” movement, which experienced a surge of growth in the 1960s.

I have seen it all, and have watched the distinct changes in the attitude of the “haiku” movement toward hokku over the years.

First, there was refusal to even admit the existence of hokku.  When I began telling people online, about 1996 — that Bashō and the rest did not call the independent brief verses they wrote “haiku,” but rather hokku, they simply did not believe me.  They thought I was making it up.

A contributing factor to that ignorance was the persistent efforts of members of the Haiku Society of America to have the word “hokku” declared obsolete in dictionaries, etc.  Their premise was that under their authority, everything was now “haiku,” even the centuries of hokku written before the term “haiku” began to be popularized in Japan about the first half of the 20th century.  Such anachronistic historical revisionism did the recognition and survival of the hokku no good.

The next step took a long time.  It is only in the last few years that people in the modern “haiku” movement began to take an interest in reviving linked verse, which was practiced in old Japan under the name haikai.  But that revival created a problem for them.  Suddenly the would-be revivalists were faced with the historical fact that the opening verse of a linked verse series — the beginning verse — was always called the hokku.  So the modern haiku movement began using that term again, after decades of having abandoned it.  But there was a catch.  They began to say that yes, there really was such a thing as hokku, but it was only the first verse of a series of linked verses.

Now that, of course, is historically completely inaccurate; hokku were often written as independent verses even in the time of Bashō (mid-17th century), who also taught the use of hokku in linked verse.

Now the modern “haiku” movement is entering yet another stage.  Some prominent individuals in the modern “haiku” movement are beginning to admit that, well yes, all the independent hokku written before Shiki were in fact called hokku, not “haiku.”  And even more striking, they are also beginning to admit that, yes, there is a distinct difference between the old hokku and what is written as “haiku” today.

Now as long-time readers of my site know, I have been saying this for literally decades, but up to now have been a voice crying in the wilderness.

So now we are entering a new period in which some advocates of modern “haiku” (though certainly not all of them yet) are finally willing to admit not only that all the independent verses written by Bashō and others before the revisionism of Shiki around the turn of the 20th century were hokku, not “haiku,” but also that there are distinct differences between those hokku and what is written as modern “haiku” today.

Now that is a major step forward, but nonetheless, this knowledge still has not filtered down to the masses of the “haiku” movement — so it will take some time to spread — if indeed it does spread.  And I must say, it should not have taken all these many years for the simple facts — which I have been stating all through that period of confusion in the “haiku” movement — to be accepted.

There is still, however, a major problem.  Aside from the time it will take for this reversal in view to filter throughout the modern “haiku” community (and one hopes it will), there is still a serious ignorance — even among those “haiku” advocates recognizing and admitting the existence of the differences between hokku and modern “haiku” — of the characteristics of the genuine hokku.  In other words, having accepted that hokku and modern “haiku” are two different things, those in the modern “haiku” community who have made the mental change still have no real and practical understanding of the aesthetics and techniques that make hokku what it is.

The result is that some in the modern “haiku” community are willing to admit and accept hokku as a separate category, but they think all that distinguishes it from “haiku” is that it is “about nature,” and they attribute that to the fact that hokku flourished in pre-industrial Japan — largely before the rise of modern technology there in the 19th century under Western influence.

Now to describe the difference between hokku and “haiku” as simply that the former is “about nature” while the latter need not be, has so far led — in the modern “haiku” community — only to further misunderstanding of what the hokku really is.  The result is that lots of newly-written verses being called “hokku” are really nothing but modern “haiku” with a dash of “nature” thrown in.

The problem in short is that the modern “haiku” community still has no understanding of the aesthetics of the hokku, and in attempting to write what they now call hokku, they are in the position of the blind being led by the blind.  Those who are instructing them do not themselves know how to write hokku.  For an example of this, read the discussions and pseudo-“hokku” on this modern haiku site page:

The reason, of course, is that when the modern “haiku” movement gained speed in the mid-20th century, it set off on its erratic course without ever having understood what the inherent aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku were.  Instead, as I repeatedly say, those in the movement misperceived and misinterpreted the hokku — which they called “haiku” — in terms of what they knew of Western poetry and Western poets.

That was a drastic and destructive error, because the aesthetics of the Japanese hokku at its best are quite unlike the aesthetics of the bulk of Western poetry in English and other European languages.

The result is that after all these years, aside from myself, I still do not know of anyone who teaches hokku in English according to the traditional aesthetics.  That is very unfortunate and entirely unnecessary.  It is certainly not to be taken as a boast, but rather as a sad recognition of how the aesthetic tradition of hokku has been largely ignored and nearly lost in the English-speaking world, due to the rise of modern “haiku” and its obscuring influence.  That there should be only one teacher of traditional hokku aesthetics where there should be many teachers indicates how very far hokku yet has to go in becoming an established tradition in the West.

In saying that I am the only teacher of hokku according to traditional aesthetics that I know of at present,  I must add the proviso that hokku as I teach it carries on the essence of the best of the old hokku, relying on the spirit, not just the letter.  It preserves the essential hokku aesthetics and leaves aside those traits that were merely cultural or linguistic baggage, or not in keeping with the best of the hokku spirit, and so not appropriate or helpful for hokku written today in an English-language context.

Hokku, then, still has a very long way to go before it recovers from the many long years of neglect and obscurity that it has experienced in the West.  Whether it will in fact survive depends on how many are able to recognize its virtues and depth in a world that is now teetering on the edge of environmental disaster.





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.




The risk of writing a lot about the verse form hokku is that people may begin to think it is complicated.  It does not help when I begin to explain how hokku differs from the recent offshoot known as haiku.  All of that can be a bit confusing at first.

The difference, essentially, is this:  modern haiku can be most any kind of verse of about three lines or less.  If someone calls it a haiku, it is a haiku.  It may be about any subject.

That notion is easy for people to grasp, and it is easy to write a verse that has no fixed standards.  It is hard to make a mistake when there are really no lines to color outside of.

Hokku, by contrast, does have standards and expectations.  First, the subject must be Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Second, the verse must be set in one of the four seasons — spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Then there are the things that should be left out of hokku:  Romance, sex, violence, things in general that tend to trouble or disturb the mind.

There is also the format.  A modern English-language hokku is written in three short lines, with the first letter of each line capitalized, and with appropriate internal and ending punctuation.  And the hokku should consist of a longer (two lines) and a shorter (one line) part, separated by appropriate punctuation.

As for aesthetics, in general hokku rely on the concrete, on things and on sensory experience.  It abandons “thinking” — intellectualizing — and emphasizes the perceiving of things through the senses.

Put that way, it does not really seem difficult, does it?  All of that is easy for people to do.

The most difficult part of hokku is to be able to achieve its sense of spareness and simplicity and the oneness of humans and Nature and the changing seasons.  Without that aesthetic, hokku does not really attain what it should.  And the way to get that into your hokku is to get the writer out of the way, to take the emphasis off the self, and to put it into experiencing.

Let’s look at a hokku by the old Japanese writer Kikaku, translated into English:


Summer rain;
A woman sitting alone,
Gazing outside.

Eight words.  That is all it takes in English.  It is in three lines, appropriately capitalized and punctuated.  It takes place in a given season (summer).  It has two parts: 1.  Summer rain; 2.  A woman sitting alone / Gazing outside, separated by appropriate punctuation (the semicolon after “rain”).  It is a sensory experience, primarily sight, but also the implied sound and feel of summer rain.  The words are simple and direct.

Though it is obvious that this is a summer hokku (given that it includes the word), I have added the season in parentheses at the beginning to show how modern hokku are shared.  Not all hokku contain the season name, and it is important to know the season.  In modern hokku that is done by putting it just before a single verse or a collection of verses of the same season.

So you see, writing hokku is really not difficult at all.  It just takes time to learn the aesthetic approach appropriate to hokku, because people are so accustomed to poetry that either tells a story, or expresses what we think about things, or comments on things, or is all about me, me, me — all things that must be dropped to write good hokku.  As you see, there is no “me” in Kikaku’s  hokku to get between the reader and the experience.  There is only the experience itself, and that is hokku.

We are not told why the woman is sitting there, or why she is staring so fixedly.  That omission is important.  The questions that poetry in general so often answers are left unanswered in hokku.  Instead, we just want the experience, plain and unadorned by thought and comment.  R. H. Blyth somewhere described that experience as the seed from which poetry grows.  The poetry is the feeling the reader gets on reading an effective hokku.  The hokku is the seed, and the poetry bursts from that seed in the mind of the reader when the hokku is read.




For those who like to see Japanese originals, here is Kikaku’s verse in transliteration:

Yūdachi ni  hitori soto miru  onna kana

Shower at alone outside looking woman kana 








New readers here may wonder why I call the old verses written by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and all the rest of the gang hokku, while elsewhere they are often called “haiku.” There are two main reasons for that, the second even more significant than the first:

1. All of the old Japanese writers prior to the end of the 19th century called such verses hokku, so “haiku” is both historically incorrect and anachronistic.

2. “Haiku” is a word that has become so widely applied to a number of disparate kinds of verse that, unlike the old hokku, to use it is often merely to confuse the reader.

If you have any doubts about #2, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years) covering the last century (somewhat haphazardly) in the history of the Western haiku (not hokku) movement. When you see everything from a short poem by Ezra pound to one-line and even one-word poems called “haiku,” it is obvious that the definition of “haiku” has changed drastically since Shiki began using it near the end of the 19th century. One amateur reviewer, after reading the book, wrote, “The book almost gives the impression that haiku has devolved.”  What we can definitely say is that the definition of haiku has become unmanageably vague and various.

Westerners seem to have been confused by the hokku from their first exposure, and re-made it according to their preconceptions derived largely from English-language avant-garde poetry in the first half of the 20th century. The modern “haiku” movement that began in the latter half of the 20th century is largely the consequence of that.

The bulk of modern haiku no longer have a connection with the season, which was essential in hokku. Many also no longer have a connection with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, again an essential of the old hokku. Often, modern haiku emphasize the ego of the writer, something avoided in hokku. And one can find many other differences between hokku and all that is called “modern haiku” today.

So, to avoid that labyrinth of confusion, I use only the historically-correct term, hokku, and I use it only for those verses that maintain the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku, the connection with Nature and the seasons, with simplicity and selflessness. I regard hokku and modern haiku as two very different things that should never be confused.

Here is an old hokku by Bashō. As you see, it is written for a particular season, and it has as its subject matter Nature (and the place of humans within Nature):


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

In the old original, it is in transliteration:

Shigeruru ya ta no arakubu no kuromu hodo

Shigeruru means the cold rains that come in the late autumn through early winter are falling. Ya is a cutting word, used to give the reader a meditative pause in which to feel and see the early winter rain. Ta no arakubu — “field’s stubble” means the short stubble left in the fields after the harvest. And arakubu no kuromu hodo means “enough (hodo) to blacken (kuromu) the “new” stubble (ara-kubu).

Even though this verse is over three hundred years old, it could have been written as a new hokku now, this very day. That is how close modern hokku is in spirit to the basic aesthetics of the old hokku tradition, in great contrast to the multiplicity of form and content found in modern haiku.