A pleasant and simple summer hokku by Kitō:

Little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water.

We see the tiny fish in the clear, sunlit water, swimming against the current, which nonetheless is so strong that, still facing upstream, they are carried  a bit backwards.

This is one of those hokku that is just a kind of rejoicing in the experience of seeing.  We feel the small strength and persistence of the little fish against the greater strength of the clear water.  There is the energy of the fish going in one direction, the energy of the water going in the other.

This is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.

The setting is “the clear water.”
The subject is “little fish.”
The action is “are carried backwards.”



All hokku are seasonal hokku, being written and marked (as practiced today) with one of the four seasons.  That comes from hokku having originated in a temperate climate.  In other climates this may vary to a summer season, a rainy season, and a winter season; to a spring, summer, and fall without winter; or  to even just a dry season and a wet season.

I am in a temperate zone with a climate similar to that of Japan (and of Britain), so hokku as I teach it has four seasons.  Those individuals living in areas with fewer seasons should adapt their hokku to those areas.

Because hokku is seasonal verse, we write according to the present season, and not only that, we read hokku according to the season as well.  That is to keep us in harmony with Nature.  Occasionally we will use out-of-season verses for learning, but in doing so we must remember that these are exceptions to the standard practice when writing and reading.

But on to summer hokku.  We cannot fully understand the aesthetics behind summer hokku without a knowledge of the two elements of Yin and Yang that comprise the universe.  These are qualities that are opposite, but which combine and work in contrary harmony throughout all things.

Yin is cold, silent, motionless, wet, dark, passive.
Yang is warm, noisy, moving, dry, bright, and active.

The entire year is a cycle of change from Yin to Yang and back again:

Winter is deepest Yin.  When Yin reaches its maximum it begins to turn to Yang.  As Yang grows, winter changes to spring.  As the Yang of spring grows further, it changes to summer, and finally it reaches a point of maximum Yang — the height of summer, at which it begins to change to Yin.  As Yin grows, summer fades into autumn (fall), and as Yin grows even more as Yang declines, autumn dissolves into Winter, and Yin grows to its maximum until the cycle repeats.

The same cycle happens in a day.  The middle of night is Yin, which begins to change to Yang.  Dawn is a mixture of Yin and Yang, and Yang grows until midday, when it reaches its maximum and begins to decline into afternoon as Yin increases, then evening, then night again.

This is the cycle too of life, including human life.  Birth is comparable to the beginning of spring; youth is the height of spring, which fades into the summer of maturity; then comes the decline into autumn, which is like the late afternoon of the day.  And then come evening and night, old age and death.

One will see these cycles repeated again and again in hokku, and when we know their correspondences, we will begin to grasp an important part of the aesthetics of the hokku.

Summer, then, is a season when Yang grows gradually to its height before beginning its decline into autumn.  In the first part of summer, Yin declines as Yang increases.  In the second part, Yin grows as Yang begins its decline.

The most obvious characteristics of summer then, are the Yang characteristics of heat and dryness.  This is just the opposite of the Yin characteristics — cold and dampness — of winter.  So we can say that both summer and winter are the “extreme” seasons, while both spring and summer are the “balanced” seasons in which both Yin and Yang work out their proportions without extremes.

That was a rather long but essential introduction.  But knowing all that, we now know that because summer is one of the “extreme” seasons, its hokku are likely to often be characterized by opposites.  That is why Yin qualities are frequently so important in summer hokku.  It is Yin that brings out the “extreme” character of the season.  So we only realize fully the importance of water (Yin) on the hottest and driest days of summer.  The same may be said of the coolness (Yin) of a breeze on a blazing hot summer day.  And there are further interesting but opposing combinations of the two, for example the sweltering heat (Yang) of a summer night (Yin).

It is important in discussing these combinations and permutations to realize that the balances and proportions of Yin and Yang are constantly changing and are not absolutes.  There are Yin elements to be found even in the height of summer, and we often take advantage of these to set off the intensity of the Yang elements of heat and light and dryness.

I recall when in my college days an instructor asked us all a question about how one character in a play acted as a “foil” to another.  It quickly became obvious that none of us knew what he meant by that, assuming mistakenly that he meant a “foil” in the sense of a fencing sword.  But the use of the term originates in a time when thin, bright metal foil was placed behind an inferior gemstone in a setting to enhance its brightness and make it stand out.  One thing being a “foil” to another, then, means one thing emphasizes the qualities of another, makes another stand out more strongly.  That is how we use Yin as a foil to the Yang of summer:

They have rolled
Out from the leafy shade–
The hot melons.

Kyorai wrote that.  We can see it does what we have just talked about; it combines the Yin of the shade and leaves and the watery melons with the heat characteristic of summer.  We feel the heat even more, seeing the Yin, watery melons that have grown hot in the intense sunlight, and the leafy shade from which they have rolled.

There is also another way of emphasing the heat — by “pouring it on,” that is, by increasing the extreme of heat by using something that is in harmony with, rather than contrasting with it.  This is using harmony of “like” things rather than harmony of contrasting things.  Hyōka wrote:

There’s a wife
And children in my house;
The heat!

The activity and wants and chatter of the children, the wife with her remarks and tasks and complaints, all combine in the hot little house to make the heat even more intense for the man, who feels that if he were alone, things would somehow seem cooler.  It is this sense of “crowding” when one wants space and coolness that is in harmony with the heat of summer.  That is why, for example, a mass of buzzing flies on a hot day would also be in harmony with the summer heat, making it even more irritating.

An extreme may be found even in the intense light of summer, as in this verse by Kyorai:

Stones and trees
Are glaring bright —
The heat!

That reminds me of a beach I once visited in the height of summer, and the light reflected off water and sand was so intense one had to squint.

Summer, then, gives us an opportunity to work with extremes, with Yang modified only slightly to greatly by the addition of this or that Yin element.  That does not, however, mean that all summer hokku must be harsh.  Summer has its harshness, but its pleasantness also.

Here is a summer verse by Kitō which nonetheless is heavy with Yin:

Little fish
Carried backwards;
The clear water.

Looking into the flowing clear water on a summer’s day, we see the tiny fish, tails wriggling, being pulled slowly downstream in the current up which they are facing.   The predominant element here is the Yin of the water, but we feel the summer in its clearness and in the wriggling of the fish.

Summer too has its more “Yin” days and its more “Yang” days.  Everything is relative, and it is the wonderful changes wrought by these differences in proportion that make things all the more interesting.

And so we return to our original premise:  All hokku are seasonal hokku.  At base, each verse is about a season.  So summer hokku should express the summer in some way.  And they should do it through sensation, through touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and seeing.

We must remember always to keep our hokku simple, our sensations direct.  Deal in real things, with water and stones and wind and flies and leaves; omit thoughts and abstractions and commentary, and do not try to write “poems.”  Instead, our goal in hokku is to express the season through sensation — through sensory experience — and if we succeed in doing that, the poetry will take place inside us, instead of on the page.

That is how hokku works.


Perhaps you remember my “Fall” hokku:

The river —
It flows out of and into
The fog.

Fog is very important to autumn hokku, and important to ink painting — one of the other contemplative arts — as well.  Fog both hides and reveals as it moves and changes.  I have always been fond of those wonderful old Chinese paintings of mountains emerging from fog.  Just as in hokku, what is seen — or mentioned — is made even more significant by what is not seen or mentioned.

Keep in mind that when three people read the same hokku, they will have three different experiences.  Yes, each will be focused on a river and the fog, but each will be different.  That is because on reading a hokku, each person draws from his or her own memory and experience to create the new experience.  So a thousand people reading the same hokku will have a thousand different experiences.

One must be careful not to make hokku too “poetic.”  Look at these two verses, the first exactly what a hokku should be, the second in hokku form but really too poetic for hokku:

Dense fog;
What is being shouted
From hill and boat?

It is a scene where on a clear day, one would easily see a river passing at the base of a steep hill.  But now there is a thick fog, and in it someone in the river boat and someone on the hill are trying to communicate by shouting through the fog that muffles all sounds.  The writer hears the shouting, but cannot clearly see either person, nor can he distinguish what it is that is being shouted.

In forming the hokku thus, Kitō conveys to us the “hiding and revealing” power of the fog.  We hear shouting, but do not understand the words in an autumn world where much is hidden by the fog.

Obviously this is a “question” hokku.  A question hokku derives its power from an asked, but always unanswered question.  What is being shouted in the dense fog?  It is that questioning feeling — that “not knowing” that is the whole point of a question hokku.  To answer it — even by saying we do not know what is being shouted — spoils the effect.

Perhaps you are familiar with the American composer Charles Ives.  One of his best-known works is titled The Unanswered Question.  It is an instrumental way of presenting the question of existence — and in Ives’ work, that question — as in hokku — is never answered.

Kitō’s hokku, then, does what hokku should do, but does not go beyond it.  By contrast, here is a verse by Buson.  You will recall that Buson was a painter, and he often strives for painterly effects in his hokku, which makes them a bit artificial.  It is worth remembering that Buson — not Bashō — was the favorite of Masaoka Shiki.   It was the “painter” aspect of Buson that Shiki liked, which contributed to Shiki’s notion that his new “haiku” should be a kind of illustration or sketch from life.  But let’s look now at Buson’s verse:

Morning fog–
A painting of people passing
In a dream.

It is really too intentionally beautiful for hokku, and is somewhat like an impressionist painting.

Literally, what Buson wrote was:

Asagiri ya   e ni kaku  yume no hito dōri
Morning-fog ya   picture in painted dream ‘s people pass

So if we moved things around a bit, we could translate it more literally as

Morning fog:
Painted in a picture —
Dream people passing.

Either way, however, it does what hokku should not do — it pulls our attention in two different directions by comparing one thing with another.  Instead of just telling us that people are passing in the morning fog, he goes beyond and tells us that it is like a picture of people passing in a dream — of dream-people passing.  Any time we have to use the word “like” to explain something in hokku, it is a warning sign.  Hokku should let things just be themselves, not be “like” this or “like” that.

To explain this further, let’s look at another Buson hokku in which he took things to a similar but even greater extreme:

Ichi gyō    no kari hayama ni   tsuki wo insu
One line   ‘s    wild-geese  foothills at  moon
wo seal

A line of wild geese;
Above the foothills,
The moon as seal.

It may not be readily obvious to someone not familiar with Chinese and Japanese painting, but what Basho is doing here is comparing — LIKE-ening–a line of wild geese flying in the night sky of autumn to a line of calligraphy — of writing — on a scroll.  And carrying the simile further, he then says that above the foothills, the moon is pressed as the seal.  In such a painting, there is generally a reddish-orange seal that is either the mark of the painter or the mark of an owner.  Such seals were often round (though sometimes square or rectangular or oval), and contained stylized Chinese characters.

So Buson is likening a passing line of wild geese on a moonlit autumn night to a vertical scroll on which there is a line of black writing, and he is likening the bright autumn moon above the foothills to the reddish-orange round seal mark of the painter.  He thus pulls the mind of the reader in two directions — one a real scene, the other the work of a calligrapher-painter.  Hokku, in my view, should not do this.  It leads, as I have said, not only to artificiality, but it also does not allow a thing to simply be what it is, to stand on its own merit and power.

Since I first posted this, someone has used part of what I wrote above on another site (, and has added this comment:

Coomler dislikes the poem for the same reasons that first attracted me to it. I don’t read the image as a “real scene” that is being compared to a painting. Like all good art, the poem is open. It could be describing the painting itself, or could be simply what it purports to be: wild geese at moonrise, realized in the artist/poet’s eye as a synthesis of art and experience. In other words, ekphrasis.

This is approaching hokku from the perspective of Western poetry, which in my view is an error.  It is not that “Coomler dislikes the poem,” but rather that Coomler dislikes it as hokku, for the reasons stated above.  However if one treats it as a Western poem (by approaching it from the perspective and conditioning of Western poetry), then it is perfectly fine.  Seen from that perspective, this verse by Buson is a literary conceit, meaning a literary comparison/likening of two quite different things.  But such cleverness — while perfectly acceptable as “poetry” — is not hokku at its best, which avoids cleverness.

Of course Westerners will often like such verses very much, because Western poetry is filled with simile (one thing likened to another) and metaphor (saying one thing is another).  A conceit is an extended metaphor.  We are accustomed to it this kind of thing, we recognize it, and we might mistakenly think it is just fine because to us it is common in poetry.  But hokku is not poetry as we understand it.  Instead, hokku should be a direct sensory experience — seeing, touching, tasting, smelling and hearing.  Hokku should not be an intellectual experience, and when we use simile or metaphor, we take hokku away from the concrete and into the realm of the abstract — the world of the mind and intellection, what we call “thinking” in hokku.  But hokku are experiencing, not thinking.

That does not mean Buson’s two verses are bad.  In their own way they are interesting for what they are.  It is just that what they are is not really what hokku should be or what hokku should do.  Fortunately, not all of Buson’s verses are like this, but when reading him, we somehow feel we can never really trust him to tell us the truth; he too often strives for an effect, and so Buson’s verses give us the same uncertain, untrustworthy feeling we get when looking at an exhibition of photos in which some have been altered by computer to enhance their effect.

For those curious about Buson’s original, here it is in transliteration, with a very literal translation:

ichi gyō no     kari ya hayama ni     tsuki wo insu
one-line ‘s   wild-geese ya  foothills at moon wo seal

Ichi gyō/ichigyō(一 ) calls to mind the vertically-written, single-line sayings — ichigyō mono –particularly Zen sayings — that were often painted on wall scrolls.