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.



In hokku, as said many times here, one looks for a harmony of the elements included.  But the technique used to create it varies.  Two main types are:

1.  Harmony of Similarity:
We find this in Chiyo-ni’s excellent verse that lets us feel the desolation and silence of winter:

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

The snow, the stillness — both express the deep Yin (cold and inactivity here) of the season.

2.  Harmony of contrast:
There is a verse by Issa that gives us the contrast between extreme cold (Yin) and extreme heat (Yang):

Scattering out
On the morning frost —
The blacksmith’s sparks.

The frost and the sparks are quite opposite, yet when joined in this winter verse they form a harmonious unity — fire and ice.  The blacksmith in the original is a nokaji (野鍛冶 )literally a “field” blacksmith — but the term means one who makes agricultural tools like scythes and hoes, etc.  That is too specific to convey in an English language hokku, and it is not really necessary to be so specific in translation.  We get the essential meaning of the verse as it stands in English.

There is a hokku by Buson from the opposite season — summer — that shows us a similar contrast of Yin and Yang, yet it has quite a different feeling because of the seasonal difference:

Clear water;
The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it.

The metal chisel becomes hot from the friction of cutting stone, so the mason places it in the flowing water to cool it.

The hokku of summer and those of winter have this in common — that those using harmony of contrast correctly often give a strong sensory impression, which in hokku is good.  It is a common effect that we all easily recognize, like coming in out of winter’s finger-numbing frost to a hot bowl of soup.



Issa wrote a spring “question” hokku about violets:


Who was it
That lived here before me?
The violets….

“The violets” is not an answer to his question, but rather the context.  He is wondering what kind of people were there before him and saw the violets of previous springs, as he sees them now.  But it is just a question that, as in all “question” hokku, expects no answer.  It is the feeling aroused by the question itself that is the point of the verse.

I happen to live in an area that used to be a forest, and children of a century ago picked wildflowers in those vanished woods.  Now it is houses, but between my dwelling and that of my neighbor, the wild violets still bloom in the spring, whether noticed or not, whether appreciated or unappreciated.  I could not help thinking of those vanished children of generations ago seeing the violets here, and now I — under greatly changed circumstances — still see them blooming.





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 transliterated Japanese:

ware [waga ueshi matsu mo oi keri aki no kure
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.




The hokku of Issa is a very mixed bag.  Often it is too emotional, or says too much.  There is, for example, this verse:

Snow sparsely falling;
A splendid
Moonlit night.

The problem here — aside from the rather awkward arrangement (it is not quite so awkward in Japanese) — is the word “splendid,” which brings up the old writing adage, “show, don’t say.”  That means we should just present the experience and let the reader experience it without telling him or her that it is “beautiful” or “splendid.”

There are many ways of re-writing this hokku to eliminate that problem, and this is only one:


Lightly, sparsely,
Snowflakes drift down;
The moonlit night.

What we want to convey is the cold night, with the moon shining on the snow, and a few flakes gently falling now and then, here and there.  The original Japanese just says yuki, meaning snow, is lightly falling (chirari chirari), but we want to emphasize the fewness of the random flakes that fall, because the snow has let up and the moon is shining between scattered clouds overhead.  It would not be shining if the snowfall were thicker and more regular.

The overall feeling is rather similar to the lines from Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below….



The original:

Yuki chirari chirari migoto na tsukiyo kana
Snow lightly-lightly-falls  splendid    moon-night kana




The autumn chill;
Every place I live in
Belongs to another.

We have entered the time for autumn hokku.  Autumn is when Nature withers, and the energies of life go inward.  It is also a time of migration for birds and animals, and so is connected to travel among humans as well.

This hokku gives us a sense that we are all transients on earth, just passing through.  Some people are able to own houses and “put down roots,” but for many, life is a sequence of rentals, always living in a building that belongs to someone else, always at the whim of circumstance.  But there is a truth in that; nothing here really belongs to us.  Nothing here can really be ours.  Nothing here will last.

The verse is based on a hokku by Issa that is usually translated differently; but this rendering is better, and has a deeper significance.