What would a Japanese of Bashōs  time think of modern hokku?

First, he or she would no doubt be surprised to find it written in a language other than Japanese.

Second, he would probably also be surprised to find us writing hokku only as independent verses, and not, at times, as the first verse in a linked verse sequence.  In his day it could have been both.

Third, in indicating the season of a verse, he would note the change from the complicated and unwieldy old “season word” system to a simple seasonal heading preceding the verse.

Fourth, he might notice the significant absence of the allegorical in hokku, because old hokku, particularly when used as the first of a series of linked verses, were often used in an allegorical way to greet the host or hostess of a gathering for writing “communal” linked verse, or for other purposes.  And with this, he might notice the significant  prevalence of objectivity in modern hokku rather than subjectivity, which was more prevalent in old hokku — particularly those written by women in those days.

Fifth, he might notice that modern hokku are written in three lines rather than one, though that would not be entirely new to him, because old hokku were often separated into two or three lines when they were written on fans, etc.

Sixth, he would probably note the paucity of allusions in modern hokku, given that old hokku frequently alluded to lines from other literature, from historical or mythological events, and so on.

An additional difference is that modern hokku places a stronger emphasis on hokku written from actual experience of an event, rather than from composition “out of one’s head,” which was very common in old hokku.

Modern hokku does differ in these respects from old Japanese hokku, but there is a good reason for all the differences.

The writing of modern “independent” hokku means that it is no longer a kind of poetry game or social composition event, as it was when practiced as linked verse.  The “season word” system was done away with because it made hokku too complex, and violates the principle of simplicity.  The allegorical or “double meaning” often found in old hokku was also dropped, because it lessens the focus by creating a second object in the mind.  Three lines are used because they provide an excellent format for hokku in English, making it not only visually pleasant but practical.  Allusion in hokku has generally been dropped because it requires not only a thorough literary knowledge but also complicates hokku, taking us away from its simplicity.

Writing from actual experience keeps us closer to Nature and its changes, and requires us to pay attention to things we might not ordinarily notice.

All of these differences return us to the essence of good hokku, which is to simply convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing context of the seasons.  Consequently needless complexities that obscure that simplicity and that clear purpose have been dropped, giving us modern hokku in English.

In old hokku, we might find such subjective verses as this one by Chiyo-ni (a female writer in the 1700s):

Plum blossom fragrance;
Where has she blown to —
The Snow Woman?

A “Snow Woman,” (Yuki Onna), in Japanese folklore, was a kind of uncanny spirit who appeared when it was snowing — somewhat like the “Snow Queen” in the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson.  If you have seen the Japanese movie Kwaidan, it has a segment with a Snow Woman.  As we can see,  Chiyo-ni’s verse takes us away from reality and into the imagination.  Chiyo-ni’s verse was intended to show us the transition from winter to spring.  Now that the plum is blossoming, she asks, what happened to the Snow Woman/the cold of winter?

But by contrast, this hokku by Chiyo-ni  would be acceptable as a very good modern hokku:

Picked up is moving;
Ebb tide.

That is also a spring verse, but here there is no imagination to distract from reality.  When the tide goes out and one picks up tiny shells, they begin to move, because the creatures in them are still alive.  This hokku gives us a strong impression of the experience, re-creating it within us.  We can see and feel the things moving in our hand.  It also conveys the sense of the growing active energy of spring.

By our standards, the first verse about the Snow Woman would not be acceptable as hokku, though it would fit the very loose and indistinct boundaries of modern haiku.  The second verse, however, makes a quite good example for teaching modern hokku.  Hokku should take us out of intellection and imagination and into Nature — to the experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  That is hokku at its best.







Within the past two weeks, I have learned of deaths of two different people I once knew.

Here are some phrases from the beginning of the Hōjōki of Kamo no Chomei:

The river flows ceaselessly, but its waters are never the same.  In pools the bubbles appear and are gone, pausing not a moment.   So it is with humans and their dwellings in this world.

Though people are many, of those I knew, few remain.  Where once were twenty or thirty, now only one or two.  At morning some die, at evening others are born — bubbles on the water.

A verse from the Diamond Sutra — a Mahayana Buddhist scripture — tells us that all component things are impermanent.  Someone put the verse loosely into rhyming English:

Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

And paradoxically, spring is here.  Crocuses and daffodils are blooming outside my dwelling.  While some things die, others are born.

Impermance, as I have said from the beginning, is behind all hokku.  It is inseparable from the world we see, as well as from the seer.  That is why anyone who writes about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, also writes about impermanence.

Here is a very loose translation of a hokku by Bonchō:

On the brushwood
Cut to burn —
Sprouting buds!




The most difficult aspect of hokku to teach is also the most important — the “spirit” or “atmosphere” or “aesthetic” of hokku.

The form of hokku is very easy and can be quickly learned.  But without the right spirit, the results — even if in perfect hokku form — will not really be a hokku.

Why do so many have trouble in learning the spirit of haiku?  Part of it is cultural.  We live in a society based heavily around the ego and the satisfaction of its whims, and consequently a very material culture.  We also live in a society increasingly separated from the natural world — from Nature and the seasons.

Hokku aesthetics, by contrast, are based on a spirit of poverty and simplicity.  In  hokku, poverty does not mean having no money or resources at all.  It means a life not based on acquisition of objects nor the endless accumulation of material wealth.  To write hokku, you should learn to be “poor in spirit.”  To be “poor in spirit” means to learn the value of living simply and without the need for many possessions.    And because hokku is all about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it is important to re-establish our connection with the natural world and the seasons — the seasons that our double-paned windows and central heating and air conditioning carefully keep out.

The fundamental principle of hokku is transience — impermanence — the inescapable fact that everything around us and within us is constantly changing.  Nothing in the world or in the universe remains the same.  We cannot hold on to any experience or to any moment of time because time will not stand still.  And we and everything around us are not so much nouns as verbs, because all is in a state of perpetual change and transformation.

That is not just the condition of Nature;  it is also the human condition — birth, growth, old age, and death.

Hokku sees everything as a part of this cycle.  We see the changes of human life reflected in the day, from morning to noon to afternoon, evening, and night.  We see the same changes in the seasons, from spring to summer to autumn and winter.

Because we live in constant change, we also know the feeling this impermanence gives us.  It is not exactly sadness, though sometimes it can be that.  It is the feeling we get on realizing that no pleasure will last, that because of impermanence all happiness is temporary, and cannot be grasped and held.  It is the feeling we get when spring passes, the feeling we get when an old friend moves to a distant town, or perhaps suddenly dies.  Everything and everyone we “have” in life will eventually be gone — and ourselves along with them.

That leads us to the next step in hokku — the de-emphasis of the “self,” the lack of importance of the ego.  In hokku we do not generally write about ourselves, our wishes, or our desires.  Instead, hokku is a very “selfless” form of verse.  When we do mention ourselves, we do it in the same objective way we would write about a crow on a trembling branch, or snow falling into a stream.  This gives us a perspective that takes us out of the everyday ego.

In everything I have said here, we can see that hokku is just an expression of the nature of existence as it was and is expressed in Buddhism, out of which hokku grew.  Buddhism teaches the three marks of existence — in Pali, Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta — loosely meaning unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and no permanent self.

The impermanence of all things means that existence will inevitably bring dissatisfaction.  We cannot hold on to anything that pleases us, and too often we are in contact with things or events that do not please us at all.  In addition, this “self” that is our constant obsession is just as impermanent as everything else.  It does not last.  We are not who we were as children, nor are we as we shall be in old age.  And whether one accepts the notion of rebirth or assumes consciousness ends in death, in either case the end of this life is the end of the person we think of as ourselves.  So the illusory “self” is just a process, an ongoing transformation like everything else in Nature.

When you begin to understand all of this — to see how inseparable one is from the rest of the ever-changing universe — one begins to get the spirit that is behind hokku.  Then one sees it is not just another form of poetry.  It is a kind of seeing into the nature of existence.  Hokku shows us the depth behind the most ordinary things and events.

Buson wrote:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

That simple verse is like an explosion of the growing Yang energy of spring, because all of those seeds — each one containing a minute life force — will begin to sprout with the warmth and wetness of spring.  In that verse we see the nature of spring — its character of fresh beginning of activity, of growth, of vitality — of change.   Note that all of that is not explained in the verse, which gives us only the essentials to light the fuse of feeling.  A hokku is the raw material of experience, and when we read it, that experience “explodes” into being within us.





The old year has departed.  Here is a loose translation of a waka by Ki No Tsurayuki (c.  872-945).  You will recall that a waka, in form, is like a hokku — but with two extra lines added.  In Japanese the number of phonetic units was:

Waka was considered a “high-class,” aristocratic form of verse, and unlike hokku, it often deals either openly or subtly with romance.  It is thus in general a more personal and emotion-centered verse than hokku.

At the ending year —
A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

As you see, we can take this as a combination of two verses, sharing “a mirror” as the link that joins them:

At year’s end;
A mirror.

A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

We picture someone — whether man or woman depends on the individual — looking into a mirror, and feeling sadness at the face reflected there.  It shows signs of age, and is not as it once was.  That, of course, reminds us of our own impermanence, of how all things in life are transient and passing — including youth and beauty.

As Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote,

Quant’e bella giovinezza,
Che si fugge tuttavia!

How beautiful is youth,
Which nonetheless is fleeting!

We see in the waka a kind of internal reflection similar to that in hokku:  the passing of the year  is reflected in the passing of beauty and youth.



Another winter hokku by Issa:

Evening snow;
People passing by
In silence.

It is not difficult to see how the elements of this harmonize.  The evening and the snow are both Yin, and though there is movement, that movement takes place in silence — which is also Yin.

It calls to mind a winter verse by Yaha, this time with greater contrast:

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Here it is the contrast between the voices and the midnight cold.  Inside in the chilly darkness, one does not see the people passing; just the voices are heard briefly, then all returns to silence.

Note the simplicity of these verses, which is an important quality of hokku.  In English, each requires only seven common words, yet each is quite effective.





We have seen a version of this hokku by Issa before:

Snow falling;
A “House for Rent” sign
That wasn’t there yesterday.

There is something rather Dickensian about this.  People don’t like to move in winter — and particularly not in very cold weather.  The sudden appearance of the sign raises unanswered questions, and in hokku, unanswered questions are deliberately never answered.  Did the tenant/tenants leave because they could not pay rent or were evicted?  Did someone die?  There are different possibilities, but the path of hokku is not to tell stories, but rather to create a kind of physical-psychological effect in the reader.   The point of the verse lies in the sudden and unexpected emptiness of the house in the falling snow.  The emptiness (Yin) of the house is in keeping with the chill and emptiness (Yin) of winter, and both in keeping with the “absence of knowing” — the unanswered question.

In reading this, we should keep in mind the “poverty” of hokku, and from that, know the vacant house is not at all in a fashionable or well-to-do neighborhood, which makes it all the more significant.



Here is a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:


The frost on the window
Only deepens it.

There is something about the icy cold of winter that really does increase the sense of aloneness.  This verse gives us the feeling of (spiritual) poverty that is so important to hokku, and the verse is all the more striking because of its stark simplicity — very much in keeping with the nature of winter cold.