A major difference between the kind of hokku I teach and the verses of modern haiku lies in a fundamental divergence in what one considers the verse form to be.  In modern haiku, verses written are considered “poetry,” and the writers “poets.”

Now this brings with it all kinds of cultural and literary baggage, because writing “poetry” puts the emphasis on the writer as well as on the cleverness of what is written.  That is a long-standing tradition in Western poetry, and it is precisely why — in my view — so many people never gain an understanding of hokku.  At its best, hokku is something quite different than “poetry.”  It is a momentary experience of the fundamental unity of humans and Nature.

If one is to experience that unity, then Nature must be allowed to speak through the writer — instead of the writer manipulating Nature in words — or even manipulating words while ignoring Nature entirely, which is often the case now with modern haiku.

If one regards hokku as poetry created by a poet, then an obstacle is put in place preventing a direct experience of Nature.  In writing hokku, ideally the writer should disappear, so that the reader may become one with the experience, with no poet or poetic cleverness getting between the reader and the experience.

To do that, a writer of hokku must — at least momentarily — become selfless; by doing so, all that remains is the experience, without poetic ornamentation, without cleverness:

A winter hokku by Jōsō:

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is pure experience.  In it, there is no overt poetry.  The poetry is in the experience — beyond the words.  When it is read, there is no “poet,” no “poetry” — just

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is the selflessness of hokku, with the writer disappearing so that Nature may speak.





It is important to know that not all old hokku provide good models for writing, nor were they all — even those we find in books today — good hokku.

Now and then we find among these old verses a tendency to over-dramatization and over-emotionalizing. It exists not only among “ordinary” writers like Jōsō, but is also found in Bashō, who in spite of his reputation wrote far more forgettable than memorable hokku.

Here is an example from Jōsō:

Colder than snow —
The winter moon
On white hair.

Or we could make it less literal:

Colder than snow —
The winter moonlight
On white hair.

What is wrong with it? From my perspective, it is exaggerated and striving for effect. Jōsō wants to make a statement about time and old age, but in hokku it is best to be more objective, to present an event that arouses the mind of the reader but does not try to manipulate it.

Here is an example of similar hyperbole from Bashō. One has the feeling his sentiments were sincere, but still there is an overwhelming sense of artificiality:

If taken in hand,
Hot tears would melt it —
Autumn frost.

One has to know the context (a bad sign in hokku) in order to understand the verse. Bashō was looking at white hairs of his deceased mother, shown to him by his brother. So the “autumn frost” in the verse really signifies his dead mother’s white hair.

It is possible in hokku to write “occasion” verses that refer simultaneously to two different things (like white hair and frost in this verse), but when doing it, one must be careful that such a verse works well on both levels. This verse fails, because on the most important level (the objective), it is too much influenced by the other, subjective level. We know that subjectively, the white hairs would not melt in Bashō’s hand, that he is exaggerating; and there seems no point to saying the obvious on the objective level — that hot tears will melt autumn frost.

In hokku one has to be very careful not to strive too much for an effect, and one must also be careful to focus on things rather than emotions. One lets things speak for themselves in arousing the mind of the reader, which will create the appropriate emotion without the need for the writer be too blatant in attempting to evoke it.

Etsujin shows us how to write a hokku that does what both Jōsō and Bashō failed to do in the above verses:

The ending year;
I hid my grey hair
From my father.

Etsujin has just objectively presented an event, but nonetheless one can feel everything that is behind it, with no sense of overstatement, no sense of artificiality. What he gives us here is something that young people may not yet understand, but it is something that older people naturally feel — that there is something unexpectedly troubling in aged parents suddenly seeing their children aging as well. I did not really understand this verse until, one day after a long absence, I visited my mother, and suddenly had the inexplicable feeling that it was somehow unkind to let her see, in her old age, the signs of age in myself — the increasingly grey hairs on my head. It quite surprised me, and Etsujin’s verse became clear. Sometimes one must grow into a hokku to understand it.

To summarize, it is generally best to be objective and subtle in hokku, particularly when conveying emotion. Being too flagrant is in bad taste because it gives an unpleasant effect somewhat equivalent to the English term “maudlin.”

It is worth recalling the connection between old age (white hair) and winter. You will remember that the season of winter corresponds to very old age and death, because it is the “death” of Nature in the cycle of the year, the ending of one cycle prior to the beginning of another.

For those wanting originals, here they are:

Yuki yori mo samushi shiraga ni fuyu no tsuki
Snow more mo cold white-hair on winter’s moon

Te mo toreba kien namida zo atsuki aki no shimo

Hand if take, vanish tears zo hot autumn ‘s frost

Yuku toshi ya oya ni shiraga wo kakushikeri

Departing year ya father at white-hair wo hid



I usually avoid presenting hokku here that are specifically Japanese in location, in favor of more general subject matter. But today I want to talk about a such a verse because it is helpful in learning how to bring interest into one’s hokku.

If I were to present a hokku about Oneonta Gorge or the Columbia palisades, it might mean something to people in my area, but it would mean little to people in other parts of the country or of the world, because they would not know the sites and so no clear corresponding image would arise in their minds. That is why I generally counsel that it is often best to avoid naming specific places in hokku; it is then easier for people in other regions to relate to a verse.

Jōsō wrote a hokku about the once-famous long bridge at Seta in Japan, or rather I should say that he wrote a hokku set at that bridge. His hokku is really about more, and that is what makes it interesting.

Suppose we just give the reader a subject, like this:

Seta Bridge;

If the reader is familiar with that bridge (and most educated Japanese would have been), it would evoke an image in the mind, but it would do little more. So how does one make such a subject interesting?

Two ways to do this are:

1. See the subject in a “new” way, a way different from what is ordinary.
2. Add action.

Beginning with the second, what exactly is action in hokku? It is how we bring something to life and make it more interesting. Action is something moving or changing — even if it is changing slowly. Of course the more rapid the action, the more striking it tends to be.

In writing today’s hokku, Jōsō used three basic elements: Seta Bridge, rain, and people.

If we use only the first, we get just a rather static image of the bridge in the mind, as we have already seen.

If we use the first and second, that adds something, but not a lot:

Seta Bridge;
Many people
are on it.

It is common for beginners to write hokku like that, not realizing that two such elements are not enough in themselves to create interest in the mind of the reader. So how did Jōsō do it? To the bridge and the people he added movement, in fact very strong movement, by adding rain and not just people, but scurrying people. Here is his verse:


So many people
Running across in the rain —
Seta Bridge.

We have the bridge, we have the people, we have the rain, and we have the action of running. That makes it interesting because it now has life and movement.

The bridge at Seta was an unusually long wooden bridge across water. This was in the pre-auto days when traffic across it would have been mostly by foot. So this is the scene:

Being on the bridge, those crossing are openly exposed to the elements, and when a cold winter shower begins to pour down upon them, they dash and scurry all the way across the long bridge, hurrying to the get to the end and to some possible shelter.

Now let’s see what the verse would have been without the strong action added by the rain and the running:

So many people
Crossing over
Seta Bridge.

That kind of verse, again, is dull. It has some action in the crossing people, but not enough to make it worthwhile. It is very ordinary, and does not enable us to see crossing the bridge in a new way. And it is also important to note that even though we know it is set in (early) winter, there is not a connection to the season in the verse that makes us really feel it. That connection is added by the rain, which at that time of year would have been cold and strong and unpleasant, thus the hurrying to get out of it in Jōsō’s original.

Remember that if a hokku merely shows us a common, everyday scene, it is likely to be uninteresting. How do we change that?

We have seen that one can add interest by using strong action, but also very important is the second way of adding interest mentioned earlier, and it is a basic principle: to make a subject interesting, we should show it in a new way, show it differently than we usually see and experience it. And that is what Jōsō has done with the subject of the long bridge at Seta.

That is, in fact, what the block print artist Hiroshige did with his visual rendering of that same bridge. Instead of depicting it on a pleasant spring or summer day, he rendered it in rain. His version, however, is a bit more placid than Jōsō’s verse, and though pleasant, it does not have quite the strong effect of the hokku, as you can see. That is partly because we do not find in it such an emphasis on scurrying crowds as we find in the hokku.


For those interested in the Japanese version, it is:

Ikutari ka shigure kakenuku seta no hashi

how-many people ? cold-rain running across Seta ‘s bridge

Shigure is the cold rain that falls in late autumn-winter; kakenuku means to run all the way across or to something.



Per Jōsō:

Lupos ululante
Omnes insimul;
Le vespere nivee.

By Jōsō:

Wolves howling
All together;
The snowy evening.

In hokku habemus harmonia de similaritate, ma anque harmonia de contrasto.  Iste verso per Jōsō nobis mostra le harmonia de contrasto.  Como?

In hokku we have harmony of similarity, but also harmony of constrast.  This verse by Jōsō shows us harmony of contrast.  How?

Prime, iste es un hokku del hiberno; le hiberno es Yin.
Secunde, le vespere es un Yin tempore del die.
Tertie, le nive es anque Yin.

First, this is a hokku of winter; the winter is Yin.
Second, evening is a Yin time of day.
Third, the snow is also Yin.

Ma in medio de tote de iste Yin, videmus le lupos, qui son multe Yang.  E le lupos ululanten, e le sono de lor critos es anque Yang.

But amid all this Yin, we see the wolves, who are very Yang.  And the wolves howl, and the sound of their cries is also Yang.

Quando usamus harmonio de similaritate, nos accentuamos le character Yin del hiberno.  Le vespere e le nive — siente ambes Yin — nobis mostran similaritate.  Ma quando usamus harmonio de contrasto, nos exprimemus como le Yang accentua le Yin, e simultaneemente, le Yang accentua le Yin.  

When we use harmony of similarity, we accentuate the Yin character of winter.  The evening and the snow — both being Yin — show us similarity.  But when we use harmony of contrast, we express how Yang accentuates Yin, and simultaneously, Yang accentuates Yin.

In le frigor nivee e le obscuritate crescente del vespere, le Yang ululante de le lupos es, in consequentia, plus impressionante.

In the snowy cold and growing darkness of the evening, the Yang howling of the wolves is, in consequence, more striking.



Jōsō wrote a summer hokku:

In the white rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos

That is a very literal translation.  In English we would not be likely to say “white rain.”  Instead we would probably say,

In the clear rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos.

This, as you all know by now, shows “harmony of similarity.”  The rain falls, the ants run down.  “Down” is a Yin direction (up is Yang);  rain is Yin.  If the ants were going up the bamboos, there would be, of course, a contrast.  But here the harmony is in the falling rain, the downward-running ants.  And of course in English there is the subtle humor of ants running down the bamboos when we would think of rainwater running down the bamboos.

Blyth, in his translation, made an intuitive leap:  If the ants are all coming down the bamboos, he thought, it must be the end of the day — twilight or evening.  All the rest of the day the ants would be busily going up.  So he translated it:

An evening shower;
The ants are running
Down the bamboos.

Of course ants will run to escape rain, so we may choose which approach we prefer.

In any case, it makes an effective hokku, with the clear rain falling and trickling down the stalks of bamboo as the dark ants come rushing downward.  It has a lot of movement, and that gives it life.



Hashin wrote a winter hokku that has always been a favorite:

Ten mo chi mo    nashi ni yuki no     furishikiri
Sky too  earth too    are-not at snow ‘s    falling-ceaselessly

No sky, no earth;
The ceaseless falling
Of snow.

Or we could translate it like this:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

The latter inserts a word (as does Blyth) not found in the original — “only,” but it conveys the meaning well and is very euphonic.

Rather literally, the verse reads:

With no heaven and earth being, snow falls ceaselessly.

That means the writer sees no sky, no earth, only snow falling ceaselessly all around.  Looking up there is falling snow; looking down there is falling snow.  The writer is in a falling-snow universe where sky and earth have disappeared.  This is a a remarkably effective, wintry verse.

Jōso wrote a hokku about sleet.  Sleet traditionally is a mixture of snow and snow that has melted into rain.  It is not the “ice pellets” of American weathermen, which ordinarily we would just call frozen rain.  Jōso’s verse is impossible to translate literally into English, and we must look at it to see why:

Sabishisa no  soko     nukete   furu mizore kana
loneliness ‘s  bottom  fallen-out  falling sleet kana

Soko nukete, “bottom fallen out”  is an expression used in Zen of a moment of enlightenment.  Imagine a bucket filled with water.  Suddenly, the bottom of the bucket gives way, and all the water falls out.  That is the moment when customary conceptions and illusions and attachments, the fixed ways of seeing the world, suddenly fall away and there is direct perception with no distinction between perceiver and perceived, no intellection obstructing.

But “bottom fallen out” means nothing in the context of the rest of this hokku if translated into English, so we must find some other way of transmitting its effect.  This is problematic, because simply using a single word like “profound” leaves us with a rather skimpy attempt at hokku:

Profound loneliness;
Sleet falling.

Not only is that too short, it is also remarkably bland, so we shall have to do better.

Let’s look at how Blyth translated it:

Sleet falling:
Fathomless, infinite

A very brave attempt!   But to really understand what Jōsō is saying, we have to turn to the principles of hokku.  Regular readers here will recall that hokku do not use metaphors. You will sometimes find modern haiku writers saying they do, but that is simply because they know nothing about hokku aesthetics, and misinterpret what they are seeing.  Instead, hokku use the more subtle technique of mutual reflection, in which the condition or character of one thing is reflected in the condition or character of another.  This too must not be misunderstood, however.

If we speak, for example, of someone washing daikon radishes in winter, we find the “yin” nature of winter reflected in the whiteness of the radishes and the cold water.  This does not mean either radish or water is a metaphor for winter or a symbol of winter.  It means instead that the character of winter is manifested both in the whiteness of the radishes and the coldness of the water.  No one of the elements is greater or lesser than the other.  The daikon radish is winter, winter is the daikon radish.  The cold water is winter, winter is the cold water.  The coldness of the water is the whiteness of the radish.  The whiteness of the radish is the coldness of the water.  Each is reflected in the other.

Knowing this, we can see what Blyth intended in his translation.  It is not merely that sleet is falling, and this makes the writer very lonely.  Instead it is that there is infinite, bottomless loneliness in the writer; and outside there is the falling of the cold sleet.  We see the character of the the infinite, bottomless loneliness in the falling sleet, and we see the falling sleet in the infinite, bottomless loneliness.

It is a mistake, therefore, to understand this verse as meaning simply that Jōso is profoundly lonely, and sleet is falling through this loneliness.  Instead, what it means is that the inner state of the writer is reflected in the outer falling of the sleet, and the outer falling of the sleet is reflected in the inner state of the writer.  They are simultanously the same and yet different, they are simultaneously inside and outside and yet there is no inside or outside.  All are one experience.

One can see there is more to this verse than is apparent to someone who does not understand the aesthetics of hokku.  Personally, I would change Blyth’s translation slightly, like this:

Sleet falling;
Fathomless, infinite

One can be alone without being lonely.  And one can be lonely without being alone.  But aloneness has a somewhat different significance, because it takes away the aspect of needing or desiring another presence.  Instead it accepts the fact of being alone for what it is, without emotional protest.  That pure aloneness is reflected in the falling of the sleet, and the falling of the sleet is reflected in that bottomless aloneness.

We should understand Jōsō’s verse, then, not as an expression of lonely, over-emotional “needyness,” but rather as a manifestation of the mind from which all accumulated concepts and desires have dropped away.

We see this concept reflected in a verse on one of the block prints of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.  It shows the female hokku writer Chiyo-ni.  The bottom has fallen out of her bucket, which lies on the ground with all the water that had been contained in it flowing away.  A full moon is in the sky.  The verse ends by telling us that with the water no longer in the the bucket, tsuki mo yadorazu — the moon has no place to dwell.

You will recall that I often speak of the hokku writer as one who must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may be reflected in the clear mirror of the mind.  This verse about Chiyo-ni goes beyond that to the stage reached by the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.

Those of you who know the traditional history of Zen will recall that centuries ago, the master of a monastery in China, the Fifth Patriarch, said that he would pass his office on to whoever in the monastery showed the deepest understanding of “Ch’an,” which is the Chinese pronunciation of what the Japanese call “Zen.”  The most respected student wrote a verse by night — a gatha — where it would be seen by all.  In it he said that the mind is a clear mirror, and that one should be careful to wipe it all the time so that it may be free of dust.  That is quite true, and it is true of hokku as well.

But there was a rather shabby fellow working in the kitchen, an illiterate nobody named Hui Neng.  When someone read to him what the verse of the chief disciple said, he composed his own verse, and had someone write and post it for him by night, out where all could see it.

The next morning the monks were shocked to read a verse that seemed to directly contradict the first verse.  In it was said that there never was a clear mirror, and that from the beginning not one thing exists, so where is there dust to cling to such an illusory mirror?

That is what we see in Chiyo-ni and her bucket with its bottom fallen out.