A loose translation of a spring hokku by Kikaku:

Dim in the shadows
Of the pines —
The moonlit night.

Oboro to wa  matsu no kurosa ni tsuki yo kana

It has somewhat the feeling of the last lines of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.



Here is my loose translation of an autumn hokku by Kikaku, in daoku form.

The autumn moon;
Across the floor —
The shadow of the pine.

Literally, in Japanese it is:

Meigetsu ya tatami no ue ni matsu no kage
   名   月    や     畳     の 上  に   松     の     影
Bright moon ya tatami ‘s on at pine ‘s shadow

The meigetsu is the bright or autumn moon — the harvest moon.
Tatami is the woven grass floor covering used in old Japan.

We could make it a big more rustic and rural Western:

The autumn moon.
Across the wooden floor —
The shadow of the pine.

It has a better flow to it, and a wooden floor is certainly more natural than linoleum.

We could also change it a bit more, without going too far from the original:

Autumn moonlight;
A pine shadow
Across the floor.

As you can see, I am not just translating old hokku to be translating them, but want to show you how to write hokku in English — in this case a daoku, or objective hokku.  If hokku is not to die out, there must be those who value it and continue to write it.



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 








Readers will long ago have noticed that I use old hokku — including verses just beyond what is technically the old “hokku” period — quite often.  My purpose in doing so is not just to provide a collection of old verse, but rather to show through them how new verses may be written in English — new hokku.

Shiki wrote a verse about a shower and rain beating on the heads of carp.  There are several ways we can present it in English — and several ways we can write other hokku using the same patterns in English.

We could say:

A sudden shower;
Rain beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We could also write it using the “repeated subject” method, which works very well in English.  You will recall that the subject of the verse is named once, but also presented a second time using a pronoun — “he,” “she,” or “it.”  Here’s how it works with Shiki’s verse:

A sudden shower —
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

Either method will work, though the second, “repeated subject” method avoids the repetition of a noun (shower – rain) in the first example, which is often useful.

This verse, though late, is nonetheless “internally” in all respects a hokku, and a rather good one.  This kind of objectivity is what we favor in hokku — no added thinking, no added commentary, not even a writer anywhere in sight.  There is only the unexpected, sudden summer shower, and the rain beating on the heads of the carp risen to the surface of the water.

In spite of being a summer verse, it is a very cooling, yin, watery verse.

Kikaku, one of Bashō’s students, wrote a verse using the same setting much earlier:

A sudden shower;
A solitary woman
Looks outside.

Blyth takes a slight bit of freedom with it, making it even more effective:

A summer shower;
A woman sits alone,
Gazing outside.

That gives us a somewhat different effect than the first, and shows us how small changes in a verse can alter the effect.



There is a summer hokku by Kikaku that requires very few words in English translation:

Inazuma ya   kinō wa higashi    kyō wa nishi
Lightning ya
yesterday wa east  today wa west.

Yesterday east,
Today west.

Even though it has a wider time scale than most hokku, it does have a sense of concentrated power and change.

We have seen that many hokku use harmonies either of similarity or of contrast.  In this verse we have the contrast of past and present, yesterday and today; and in addition we have the contrast of East and West.

That is why this hokku gives us a sense of space.  There is the  vast space between yesterday and today, which is in harmony with the vast space between the eastern sky and the western sky.  Both are unified by the lightning.



One cannot compose hokku without a form, and the form of English-language hokku is simple and practical.  One need not worry about what it is to be because it already exists and serves quite well.

A hokku in English consists of three lines, the center often (but not always) a little longer than the other two, which are approximately equal in length.

As a guide for length, hokku in English has as its standard a sequence of 2, 3, and 2 “essential words.”  Essential words, as the term is used in hokku, means those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar.  That means we need not count articles such as “the,” “a,” or “an.”  Nor need we often count prepositions such as “to,” “from,” “under,” “in,” and “on.”  That leaves us largely with nouns, verbs and an occasional personal pronoun.

There is a hokku by Bonchō:

The razor,
Rusted in one night;
The summer rains.

The essential words in that verse would be:

rusted one night
summer rains

That gives us a pattern of 1-3-2 essential words, which is close enough to the standard.  We may also go slightly over the standard, and often we will use precisely the standard of 2-3-2.  One need not be too rigid about it, because the purpose of the standard is merely to ensure that we do not begin adding needless words, putting too much into a hokku and violating the principle of poverty.

Punctuation is very important in English-language hokku.  It has two related purposes:  It indicates the length of pause and the nature of separation or connection between two lines — working in a somewhat “musical” sense, and equally important, it guides the reader smoothly through the verse without confusion.  Both of these are significant in how a reader experiences a verse.

Punctuation, like the overall form, is something already determined in English-language hokku.  Once one knows the significance of each mark, it really becomes quite easy:

To understand hokku punctuation, we first must know that every verse consists of two parts, a longer and a shorter.  There is always a punctuation mark separating them, and there is always a punctuation mark at the end of the verse.

The two parts of a hokku may be separated by:

1.  A semicolon (;) — this gives a definite, strong meditative pause.
2.  A comma (,) — this gives a brief connective pause.
3.  A question mark (?) — which of course indicates a question.
4.  A dash ( — ) indicating a long connective pause.

A hokku usually ends with a period (.), more rarely with an exclamation mark (!), a question mark (?)  and occasionally ellipses (….)

Finally, hokku in English have the first letter of each line capitalized, and of course the first letter of any proper noun (a name, such as “Spirit Lake”) is capitalized as well.

This form — this system of lines, of punctuation, of capitalization — works extremely well and does everything we need to do in a hokku.  Because it is all settled and standardized, there is nothing to excite quibbles.  It works and it works well, requiring no change.

Knowing all this, if one sees a verse that looks vaguely like hokku but is not capitalized or punctuated, or has merely a hyphen as a separating mark, we know it is not a hokku, but some other kind of brief verse.  I am speaking in all cases here of hokku written in English, of course, though the same general principles apply to other European languages.

I have already said that every hokku consists of two parts — a longer part and a shorter part — and that these are separated by a punctuation mark.  We see that in a verse by Kikaku:

Yesterday in the East,
Today in the West.

Notice that each line begins with a capital letter;
Notice that the internal separation mark in this verse is an exclamation point, which indicates something unusual or unexpected;
Notice that the verse ends with a period;
And finally, note that the hokku consists of a pattern of 1-2-2 essential words, quite close enough to our 2-3-2 standard.

That is a quick summary of the hokku form in English.  Yet a verse can be correctly punctuated and capitalized, and be the right general length, and still fail as a hokku.  That is why without knowing the aesthetics and techniques, there is really no hokku.  The outer form is the shell, like the shell of a walnut.  And as with a walnut, it is what is inside that makes it worthwhile.  That means to practice hokku, one must devote considerable time to its aesthetics and techniques, to learning its overall spirit and how it is applied when one writes.  Having covered the form of the hokku, we are now ready to go on to that deeper topic, to what really makes a hokku a hokku and not something else.



An old winter hokku by Sōgi, who lived long before Bashō:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping
Of duck wings.

We can easily see its form.  It is:

Setting:  In the freezing night.
Subject: duck wings
Action:  the ceaseless flapping of

In other words, we have what is common to many hokku — a setting, a subject, and an action — a movement, something moving or changing.

Bashō wrote:

Shigururu ya   ta no arakabu no   kuromu hodo
Winter rain ya field ‘s stubble ‘s blacken up-to

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

We can see that the pattern of this is different.  “Winter rain” is both the setting and the subject.  First the writer presents it to us, so we can see and feel it, and then he expands on it it with a further qualification — “enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.”  It is a different approach, not the normal “standard” hokku with setting, subject and action, but it is very effective nonetheless.

In all of these hokku we see again that a hokku is essentially two parts presented (in English) in three lines.  In Sogi’s verse the two parts are:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping of duck wings.

In Bashō’s verse the two parts are:

Winter rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.

In both of these the shorter part functions as the setting, something very common in hokku.

Bashō’s verses were sometimes good, more often not so memorable.  We must remember that only a fraction of his hokku are really worthwhile.  He wrote another winter verse:

Fuyu no hi ya   bajō ni kōru    kagebōshi
Winter ‘s day ya horse on freezes  shadow

The winter day;
A shadow freezing
On the horse’s back.

We get what he was after, but it does not quite work.  What he really meant was that HE was freezing on the horse’s back, and when he transfers that sensory experience to a visual shadow, he is pulling us in two different directions, which does not work well in hokku.

We have to remember that Bashō was not any kind of Superman of hokku, he was just a writer who sometimes succeeded, sometimes not.  What Bashō did do was to live what he wrote about.

Kikaku, whose hokku are usually suspect, did write a rather good winter verse:

Kono kido ya   jō no sasarete   fuyu no tsuki
This brush-gate ya lock’s fixed   winter ‘s moon.

This brushwood gate,
Locked up tight;
The winter moon.

We feel the motionlessness, the stillness, the un-move-able-ness of the cold of winter, and the white light of the moon only adds to the chill.  Blyth translated the second line as “Is bolted and barred,” which not only emphasizes the effect but is also euphonic.

And last, for today, a verse by Tantan:

Hatsuyuki ya   nami no todakanu   iwa no ue
First-snow ya wave ‘s reach-not     rock ‘s on

We have to rearrange the elements to make it come out right in English:

On a rock
The waves cannot reach —
The first snow.

It is not a high rock, but just enough above the rough water so that the waves cannot wash away the first snow that has fallen upon the blackish mass of stone.

After reading these hokku, you will probably feel like putting on a sweater or heating a nice warm cup of herbal tea!  But I hope you will also pay attention to how each of these verses manages (or fails, in one case) to let Nature speak.





Sometimes on this site I will seem to go far afield, but generally there is a thread leading in some way back to hokku or the spirit of hokku.

Johann Peter Hebel, who wrote in Swiss-German, has a very remarkable poem:


S’isch wor, Her Jäck, i ha kei eigene Baum,
i ha kei Huus, i ha kei Schof im Stal,
kei Pflueg im Feld, kei Immestand im Hoff,
kei Chatz, kei Hüenli, mengmol au kei Geld.
“S macht nüt.  ‘S isch doch im ganze Dorf kei Buur
so rich as ich.  Der wüsset wie me’s macht.
Me meint, me heigs.  So meini au, i heigs
im süesse Wahn, und wo ne Bäumli blüeiht,
‘s isch mi, und wo ne Feld voll Ähri schwankt,
‘s isch au mi; wo ne Säuli Eichle frisst,
es frisst sie us mim Wald.

So bin i rich. Doch richer bin i no
im Heuer, in der Erndt, im frohe Herbst.
I sag:  Jez chömmer Lüt, wer will und mag,
und heuet, schnidet, hauet Trübli ab!
I ha mi Freud an allem gha, mi Herze
an alle Düften, aller Schöni g’labt.
Was übrig isch, isch euer.  Tragets heim…


It’s true, Mr. Jäck, I have no tree of my own,
I have no house, I have no sheep in the stall,
No plow in the field, no beehive in the yard ,
No cat, no dog, often also no money.
It doesn’t matter.  For there is in the whole village no farmer
As rich as I.   You know how it is done?
think I have it — I think too that I have it
In sweet foolishness, and where a tree blooms
It is mine, and where a field of grain waves
It is also mine — and where a pig eats acorns
It eats them in my woods.

So I am rich; but even richer
In Haying, in the Harvest, in happy Autumn.
I say, “Now come, people, who will and may,
And mow, and reap, and cut the grapes.
I have had my joy in all of it —
Have refreshed my heart
With all the scents and all the beauty.
What remains is yours — carry it home!

This Swiss farmer’s “sweet foolishness” is well on the way to the wisdom that results from William Blake’s counsel:

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

Hebel’s poem is very much in keeping with the old hokku by Kikaku:

A beggar;
He wears Heaven and Earth
For summer clothes.

Thomas Traherne, in his Centuries of Meditations, wrote:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars : and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”