Issa wrote a hokku for the end of spring:

Sough, sough —
Spring departs;
The grass of the fields.

If you do not like the respectable old word sough for the rustling, sighing sound of the wind through the grasses, you might prefer something else that is onomatopoeic:

Sssss, sssss —
Spring departs;
The grass in the fields.

But actually, for me the first one is problematic because few people know the meaning or pronunciation of “sough” these days.  And the “Sssss” of the second one might be just meaningless and confusing to readers untrained in hokku, who are not likely to intuit that it is the sound of the (unmentioned) wind in the grasses.

So I will go with a translation more obvious and easily grasped, yet very effective:

Departing spring;
The wind bends the grasses
Of the fields

Issa watches the high grasses in the fields, bending and sighing in waves as a gentle wind rustles across them, and he realizes that spring is ending.

Edward FitzGerald, in his reinterpretation of Omar Khayyam, saw the end of spring and expressed openly what is only latent in Issa:

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

It is a lamentation of the passing of spring, and with it, of the passing of youth, the springtime of our lives.  The days of our youth are a tale in a book with fragrantly-scented pages, but that brief story ends, that book closes, never to be opened again.  That, of course, is metaphor.


To emphasize that finality, he gives another metaphor for the passing of something sweet, for the passing of springtime and youth:  the nightingale that sang so beautifully, yet briefly, in the branches — where did it come from?  And where has it gone? Why does he lament that spring vanishes with the rose? Because until relatively recent times, the roses of the Middle East and of Europe bloomed in the spring, and then were gone. When they went, so did spring. Our modern “ever-blooming” roses are the result of the introduction of previously unknown kinds and of hybridization into Europe and America.

We see some of the techniques of hokku in this, though used in a far more obvious way.  We see the reflection of spring in the time of youth, and we find a very strong sense of transience, of the brevity of life as it passes. But hokku would never present these things in so obvious a manner.  Instead, hokku just shows us something happening in Nature, and in that happening, as in Issa’s hokku, we feel everything expressed about that time of year, that time of life.

And of course with spring having passed, this means we are now in the season of summer hokku.



A contrasting coxless pair, with one oar per rower

Last night, for no obvious reason, these words popped into my head:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

They appeared in my mind suddenly, completely without context, and at first I could not recall where I had heard them.  I ran through the possibilities, and eventually decided they must be from the end of The Great Gatsby, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald that has never really interested me.  But those particular words obviously did — why else would they pop into my mind completely unbidden?

Gradually I realized it was because they are poetry, in fact a short poem in themselves.

When I was in my college years, I developed a poetic form I called “Fragments.”  It came to me after reading translations of ancient Greek poetry, some lines of which exist only as short, isolated fragments of lost, larger poems.  So for a time, I wrote “fragments,” in which one may begin the poem in the middle of a thought with words like “…But if I tell you…”  or “…And so they vanished…” — new, brief  poems written as though they were fragments from some lost, longer work.

The quote from The Great Gatsby is, for me, essentially a “fragment” poem divorced from its wider context, and that it is a poem in itself becomes obvious if we present it like this:

…So we beat on,
Boats against the current,
Borne back ceaselessly
Into the past….

It is also, of course, a metaphor comparing human life to boats struggling against a current that continually bears us, no matter how we beat against it with our oars, backward.

There is a very similar (though completely non-metaphorical) summer hokku by Kitō:

The little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water. 

If we look again at the Fitzgerald quote, we find that its effectiveness is not only due to its evoking the contrary forces of trying to move forward while being carried backward, not only due to its metaphor, but also due to its alliteration, consonance, and assonance — the repetition of the “b” sound and the “s” sound:

So we Beat on,
BoatS againSt the current,
Borne Back CeaSeleSSly
Into the paSt….

There is also the repetition of the “n” sound:

So we beat oN,
Boats agaiNst the curreNt,
BorNe back ceaselessly
INto the past….

And the asssonance of

And there is the pleasing, double-beat harmony between “beat on” and “borne back.”

This sort of thing draws our attention to the fact that in books, some lines supposedly of prose are actually lines of poetry.  But of course as you have read here in earlier postings, some lines of what is presented as poetry because of the division of lines turn out, on closer examination, to be merely prose disguised as poetry.  Do not be deceived, and do not fall into the trap (as even some prominent published poets do) of thinking that merely dividing what is inherently prose into “poem” lines makes it a genuine poem.

We can see the real thing in the “Gatsby” fragment.



Long-time readers here will recall that I have discussed the issue of metaphor and simile and their relation (if any) to hokku.  I have pointed out that what readers — even presumably scholarly readers — often interpret as metaphor in hokku is better understood — at least in hokku as I teach it — as the more prevalent practice of the principle of internal reflection.  I have also said that though metaphor is not entirely absent from all old hokku, the best verses did not use it.

There is a great deal to be said about metaphor and simile, which have a long history in English literature and have been so often used that they seem a poetic crutch for which the laboring poet automatically reaches when in difficulty, and from this sentence alone one can see how common their use has become; I have just used a metaphor myself.

There are, then, times when a metaphor or simile may be helpful in prose or in poetry (though not in hokku), yet one feels, like Ogden Nash in his poem Very Like a Whale, that both are used to excess.  He tells us, half in jest, half serious:

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can’t seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else….
That’s the kind of thing that’s being done all the time by poets, from Homer to Tennyson;
They’re always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison.
How about the man who wrote,
Her little feet stole in and out like mice beneath her petticoat?
Wouldn’t anybody but a poet think twice
Before stating that his girl’s feet were mice?
Then they always say things like that after a winter storm
The snow is a white blanket.  Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a
six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of
unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

I have said in previous articles that simile in poetry — saying one thing is like another — draws the mind in two directions by presenting it with two different images.  To say, for example, that the rising crescent moon is like a ship of silver sailing up on the blue sea of heaven, detracts from the moon and the sky as they are, and brings in the image of a ship and of a sea, and the mind must combine these into a new image created by the original “real” image and its overlay.

That does not mean metaphors and similes are good or bad; it simply means, as I have said before, that one must use the right tool for the right task.  In hokku as I teach it, we keep a very strong focus of the mind, for which simile and metaphor act merely as a distraction.  In other kinds of poetry — well, we shall see.

There is much more to be said about metaphor and simile, but I will delay that for when I have more time.  So expect this brief posting to grow longer in the next few days.  I would like readers, meanwhile, to read the excerpt from the Nash poem and to think about the place (is there one, legitimately?) of metaphor and simile in poetry, and to a lesser extent, in prose.

It is worth considering, in the interim, how hokku generally goes for what Nash calls the “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the great contrasts between hokku and conventional poetry.  In fact the great discovery of people like Bashō was to find the poetry in such “unpoetical blanket material,” which is one of the things that makes hokku so unlike what people generally think of as poetry.



In hokku, as I have said many times, we do not use metaphor (saying one thing is another) or simile (saying one thing is like another).  There is a specific reason for that.  It is that in hokku, metaphor and simile draw the mind in two different directions, and two separate images compete for the reader’s attention.  This is contrary to the very intense, aware focus that hokku as taught here requires.

That does not mean, of course, that metaphor and simile are inappropriate for other kinds of writing and other occasions.  Sometimes they can be quite effective, and indeed at times may be the best way of expressing something.

There is an old and rather odd book written by a woman named Grace Duffie Boylan.  It came to be in 1918 and was published in 1919, and it purports to be the after-death communications of her son, killed in action in Europe — in Flanders — in the First World War — that shadow time of immense grief and suffering.  It is titled Thy Son Liveth.

I don’t intend to take up the issue here of how authentic the communications in the book may or may not be, because what I really want to talk about now is an exquisite use of simile in the text — in something she says was told her by her son from the afterlife.  You will find it on page 22:

Mother, the soul leaves the body as a boy jumps out of the school door.  That is, suddenly, and with joy.

The poetry of those lines, for me,  is the pinnacle of the entire book.

I must add, though, that there is an amusing little verse on another page, 38, when her son asks,

Do you recall how we laughed over that epitaph on a little white gravestone in New England:

‘Since so quickly I was done for,
I wonder what I was begun for?'”

Reading the book, whatever one may think of its veracity, is very poignant for those who, like me, can remember the days when a very few aged, grey soldiers from that terrible First World War still marched in every Fourth of July parade, and when one might encounter on the street a poor old man still “shell-shocked” from that horrendous conflict — and of course each year those selling the little, paper poppies to pin on one’s lapel or dress – the poppies that had become the symbol of that frightful war and its terrible harvest of the lives of youth.

There was a time when almost everyone in America recognized this poem by John McCrae:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

The book Thy Son Liveth may be found online at:

You may be interested to know that the concept of Boylan’s book was reworked into an updated story for a movie a few years ago.  While some may feel it excessively sentimental, others will find it both moving and inspiring — but in any case it is worth watching just to see Vanessa Redgrave’s performance and to hear that remarkable use of simile from the book.  The film — available on DVD now — is called A Rumor of Angels.




We already know that a metaphor, simply speaking, is saying one thing is another.  And we know a simile is saying one thing is like another.  An allegory is “speaking otherwise than one seems to speak,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.  In simple terms that is “saying one thing, but meaning another.”  A symbol is “something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else,” as the same dictionary tells us.

Knowing all this, we are now prepared to take a look at two verses:

Shiragiku no   me ni tatete miru    chiri mo nashi
White-chrysanthemum ‘s eyes at raise look  dust even not

White chrysanthemums;
Lifting the eyes to look —
Not a speck of dust.

This verse was written as a greeting to Bashō’s hostess.  This was a common function of the hokku when used as the first verse of a series of linked verses (haikai no renga).

Botan shibe fukaku   wakeizuru hachi no   nagori kana
Peony pistils deep   separate-emerge  bee ‘s parting-reluctance kana

The bee emerges
From the peony pistils.

This verse was written as a parting verse for one of Bashō’s hosts.

Now it is immediately obvious that both of these verses were written for special occasions — the first as greeting, the second as parting — and so they fall into a particular class of hokku that we call “occasion” hokku (in the old haikai practice, a greeting verse could be the opening verse of a series of linked verses).

Long-time readers of this site will recall that we have talked about  “occasion” hokku before, explaining how they differ from regular hokku.

To understand the peculiar nature of “occasion” hokku, we must understand just what they are.  Keep in mind always the dictum that the best hokku (we are not talking now about bad hokku or the occasional exception here) are not symbols for anything, are not metaphors.  Instead, they make use of layers of associations.  They do not say one thing is another (metaphor), nor do they say one thing is like another (simile).  This is a matter difficult for some people to understand, because they are so accustomed to simile and metaphor in Western verse that they see it even where it does not exist.

There is an interesting yet very simple summer hokku written by Chine-jo (the -jo suffix tells us the writer is a woman).

Easily it glows —
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We could say that this verse has a double meaning, because it was written as Chine-jo’s death verse — but that is not entirely accurate.  To say that the verse is a metaphor for Chine-jo’s death and leave it at that would also be misleading, because the verse uses the old principle that in hokku, one small thing can hold the meaning of something much larger.  For example, we say that in hokku one leaf is all of autumn.

In this verse, the firefly’s glow going easily out expresses all such things in Nature, the fact that if the ego is not struggling against Nature, everything becomes “easy” in life and death, because the individual will dissolves into Nature’s will, as it is put in Canto III of Dante’s Paradiso:

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

Rather it is necessary to this blessed existence
To keep one’s self within the Divine will,
So that our wills may be one..

E ’n la sua volontate è nostra pace:

And in His will is our peace.”

That is the mind of Chine-jo, whose will has become one with the firefly, with Nature, so that

Easily it glows,
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We will often find hokku that, while having their own meaning, to be read as referring to nothing beyond themselves, are yet applied to events in life that are expressed through them.  We find them — as here — in death verses, in verses written for greetings and partings and other such occasions, which is why we call such hokku “occasion” hokku.

That brings us back to the earlier two examples — the white chrysanthemum and the emerging bee.  As “occasion” hokku, these have a double meaning.  The chrysanthemum applies to Bashō’s hostess, on one side; but on the other, it is simply a hokku about a chrysanthemum.  Similarly the emerging bee verse on one side is simply about that; on the other it applies to Bashō’s reluctant departure.  Chiyo-ni’s verse, on one side, is about human death; but on the other side, it is about the light of a firefly going out.

We must not minimize or subordinate either meaning in occasion hokku, but neither should we confuse them simply as allegory or metaphor by saying:  “This says A, but it means B.”  The correct answer is, “This means A and it means B.  Sometimes we will want to read it as A, but for this particular occasion and purpose, it means B.”  Half of the dual function of an occasional verse is, in the words of the O.E.D., speaking otherwise than one seems to speak, which is the definition of allegory; and Bashō quite obviously did, for particular occasions, compose hokku in which he was doing so, as did other composers of such verses.  But we must not forget the non-occasion use of the same hokku, when the original occasion has passed and the hokku still exists and must be appreciated not as allegory but for itself alone.

The solution to the matter lies in the difference between subordination and equality.  If we say, for example, that the verse about the spotless chrysanthemum is a metaphor, or an allegory, or a symbol for Bashō’s hostess, but fail to point out that the verse must also function perfectly as a hokku completely on its own and independent of that allegorical use, then we are subordinating the “ordinary” meaning of the hokku to the allegorical meaning.  If a hokku is strong in its allegorical significance, but weak independent of allegory, then it fails as good hokku.

An “occasion” hokku must be able to function equally well in both its application as “allegory” and in non-occasion, non-allegorical use — at its own obvious “face value,” so to speak.

It is critical when writing occasion hokku that we do not cross the line into making them meaningful only when applied to the event, in which case they would be mere allegories.  All too often the old writers of hokku — particularly those used as the first verse of haikai-no-renga did this.   Instead, they must be fully strong within and as themselves — like the “firefly” verse of Chine-jo — and yet fully expressive of the occasion for which they are written — as we also find in that verse.

Having said all this, what then, do we do with the occasional old hokku that does use metaphor in some way?  We find, for example, Bashō’s autumn hokku:

Yuku aki ya   te o hirogetaru   kuri no iga
Going autumn
ya hands o opened chestnut’s bur

Autumn departing;
With open hands —
The chestnut burs.

Here, in a greeting verse written for a linked-verse-composing party, Bashō is apparently referring to the mature, opened halves of the chestnut bur as “palms” (he actually says “hands” but it is assumed that the means the halves have opened like the hollowed palms of two hands).

The answer is that we do nothing at all.  referring back to the first part of this article, you will recall I said that the best old Japanese hokku do not use obvious metaphor or simile.  And this rather mediocre verse is no exception to that rule.

In our practice of hokku we do not use such verses as models precisely because the use of metaphor or simile detracts from what we want to achieve in the kind of hokku I teach.  A metaphor or simile in verse is essentially a split image, requiring the reader to visualize two different things, such as the chestnut bur halves and the opened palms in the verse by Bashō.  But in hokku we want the focus undivided, direct and strong.

To summarize then:

1.  The best old hokku (and of course good modern hokku) do not use metaphor or simile.

2.  Some old hokku applied to certain occasions such as greeting, parting, and death had the ability to function on two different planes of meaning; one function approximates that known in English as allegorical; the other function was entirely non-allegorical; neither function is subordinated to the other in the best hokku, making such a verse non-allegorical (and non-metaphorical) in the common English sense of the word, which requires the subordination of one function to the other.

Do you still find all of this somewhat confusing?  No problem.  Just let the academics bicker pointlessly over it, but remember not to use metaphor or simile or allegory in your hokku, with the possible exception of the double function of “occasion” hokku as explained above — if from time to time you may feel moved to write an “occasion” hokku.  If you do not feel so moved, you may ignore them entirely.



There is a very interesting old summer hokku by Ryusūi:

Mayoigo no   naku naku tsukamu   hotaru kana
Lost-child ‘s  crying crying grasping fireflies kana

A lost child;
He cries and cries
And grasps at fireflies.

Some verses make such excellent metaphors for one thing or another that we must resist the temptation to read them as such, because if we do so read them, we lose the poetry at which hokku excels — the poetry of the “thing-event” itself, with nothing added.

Westerners often simply do not understand this, because Western poetry very seldom enjoys something for itself; they think that one must add a “poet’s eye” to it, meaning additional commentary or metaphor or speculation or elaboration or ornamentation.  But in hokku it is just the unspoken significance of the thing-event that is wanted, none of the rest, thank you!

What do I mean by a “thing-event”?  I mean simply something being what it is, doing what it is doing; a leaf is both a thing (a leaf) and an event (leafing).  Human beings human-be.  Nothing exists stable and unchanging, not a stone, not a river, not a galaxy.  So the “thing-event” in this verse is the little-child-crying-as-he-grasps-at-fireflies.

Robert Frost, in his poem “A Tuft of Flowers,” wrote:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside the reedy brook the scythe had bared…

The mower in the dew had loved them thus
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.”  That is the very spirit of hokku and its humility.  When we want to be “poets,” we are taking the focus away from what we write and putting it on ourselves — and that is the opposite of hokku.  Our writing should not be to draw the thought of the reader to us, but rather to just let him or her experience the unspoken significance of the thing-event, whether it be a tuft of flowers spared by a scythe or a little child weeping and grasping at fireflies.  As we say in hokku, we must be silent so that Nature may speak.

Now, having warned the reader that Ryusūi’s hokku is NOT a metaphor, NOT a symbol, we are now free to say again that such a hokku, though it is neither of those things, nonetheless does make a good metaphor for human life.

It is interesting that in Japanese, the first word of the expression meaning “lost child” — mayoi — also is the Japanese translation of the Buddhist sanskrit term māyā, which means “illusion.”  Māyā is the illusion of existence, our attachment to the idea of a personal “self,” our getting caught up in thinking that running after wealth and power and fame and sensual pleasure are real and important.  People forget the old saying, “Birth is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.”  They neglect their spiritual development, spending all their time on television or parties, or (gasp!) the Internet.  They do not know or have forgotten the old Buddhist parable from the Mahayana Lotus Sutra:  A group of children were busy playing in a house that caught fire, too absorbed in their games to notice.  Their father called and called for them to come out, but they were so wrapped up in their entertainments that they paid no heed to the fire or to him.

We are all in a burning house.  We are all lost children.  And we weep and weep about it, but what do we do?  We continue to “grasp at fireflies,” even as we weep.

We are perfectly free to use a hokku as a metaphor, but we must not make the mistake of saying or thinking it IS a metaphor.  And when we so utilize it, we must give up the poetry of the hokku in order to make our own use of it, putting it to a task for which it was not intended, no matter how well it does the job.



Shiki, the “founder” of haiku as separate from hokku, wrote a verse that has (at least) two possible interpretations:

The first is as a hokku would be written:

A tub of indigo
Poured out;
The waters of spring.

Seen this way, someone involved in dyeing cloth has dumped out a tubful of indigo dye.  The dark, greenish liquid runs into and tinges the little rivulets and pools of flowing, springtime water a deeper hue, now that the frozen winter has passed (objects dyed in indigo, by the way, do not turn the deep “indigo” blue until some time after they are removed from the dye liquid).

The second way of understanding this verse is not at all hokku-like, because it makes it a metaphor.  Blyth has altered the verse slightly in his translation, making the “tub” a barrel and the “waters of spring” a river:

A barrel of indigo,
Poured out and flowing:
The spring river.

Seen thus, Shiki’s verse is no longer hokku.  Instead it is a metaphor used more as simile.  The river of spring looks like a barrel of dark, greenish indigo poured out and flowing.  This is the same technique used in the popular old poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor….

Both ways of reading Shiki’s verse are poetry in some sense, but only the first is the poetry of hokku.

In the first, we deal with the real world, with a poured-out tub of indigo running into and tinting the waters of spring.  In the second we are in the world of fantasy, where a river is no longer a river but a giant barrel of indigo poured out and flowing.  Those who do not know how indigo dye functions are even likely to visualize the liquid flowing from the barrel as deep blue, when actually it is greenish and only turns blue in items dyed with it that are exposed to air for some time — a chemical process.

Hokku does not use the second method because it takes us away from reality and into fantasy.  It mixes two images in our minds, and the mind must jump back and forth between them.  Usually the “fantasy” image wins our attention.

That does not mean the second does not create a vivid image and is not poetry in a conventional sense.  But it does mean that the “poetry” of the second verse is not the poetry of the first, which deals with the “real world” and does not mix the real world with poetic fantasy.

That is one of the distinctions between hokku and other kinds of verse.  Hokku prefers the “thing itself” to metaphor or simile that alters and ultimately detracts from the thing, no matter how conventionally poetic the result in the latter case.



I was very amused by a comment in the Guardian by a fellow who attended a Quaker meeting:

“ sit there in silence. Five minutes goes by. You shift a bit in your seat. Another five minutes goes by. Did I say goes? These five minutes crawl by like drugged somnabulating slugs. Nothing happens at all…  Another five minutes passes. It is excruciating now.”  (

What this fellow sees as nothing happening is actually something happening, but because he is completely unfamiliar with the context, he is totally bewildered by all those people silently sitting and doing apparently nothing, and cannot recognize what is really taking place, which is something of deep significance.

It all reminds me so very much of how modern haiku enthusiasts react to hokku.  There is something happening in it, but they do not understand the aesthetic context.   Undeterred by that, they apply to it what they think should be happening in verse — and one of those things is metaphor.

If there is any verse to which modern haiku pundits might apply metaphor, surely it would be this summer verse by Bashō:

Takotsubo ya    hakanaki yume wo    natsu no tsuki

Octopus-pot ya fleeting dreams wo summer  ‘s moon

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.

The octopus finds a cozy, earthenware pot that looks to be a useful shelter.  But when dawn comes, the pot and octopus will be pulled from the water, and his life will be over.  The pot is a trap.

Those frantic to see metaphor in hokku will say the octopus pots are metaphors for human life.  But they will be wrong.  In hokku an octopus pot is an octopus pot. Human life is human life.  There is no need for metaphor, which actually detracts from what the writer of hokku intends.

Westerners are accustomed to overstatement, to endless analysis.  Hokku merely presents the reader with something happening in Nature.  The point of the hokku is in what is happening, just as the point of a Quaker meeting is in the gathered silence.  A Quaker needs no minister or priest standing at the end of the room sermonizing or ritualizing.  The silence, which seems to be “nothing,” is quite full in itself.  And the hokku needs neither metaphor nor simile — it too is quite sufficient in itself.

To grasp hokku, one must really abandon what one thinks one knows about poetry, all the baggage and explanation that goes with English literature.  The last thing one needs is to misapply all that baggage to something that neither requires nor is illumined by it.

Getting modern haiku enthusiasts to see this, however, is is remarkably difficult, because they come to hokku with expectations and notions that simply do not apply to it.  Very few are able to abandon those expectations and misapplied notions, to free their minds so they are able to at last perceive how very different hokku is from everything they have thought of up to this point as poetry.

Most in modern haiku do not even try, and are quite content to write free verse in three lines and label it haiku, never questioning how — or even if — it relates to all that was written by all the hokku writers prior to Shiki’s presentation of the “haiku” to Japan.

That is why I always tell students that to learn hokku, one should not even think of it as poetry.  By abandoning that context altogether, one is finally free to see hokku for what it really is:

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.



Metaphor is not a part of good hokku as I teach it.  Let’s look at just what a metaphor is:

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it is a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object different from, but analogous to, that to which it is properly applicable.”

Anyone who has studied Western poetry or English literature in general should readily know what that means when applied to poetry.  It means, put simply, saying one thing is another, as opposed to the simile, which says one thing is like another.

If a writer, for example, says that mountains are “silent folk,” he is saying that mountains are “folk,” meaning people.  He does not, of course, really believe the mountains are silent folk; he is just using metaphor as a poetic technique to make his point.  If he were using a simile (which he probably should in this case), he would say instead, that mountains are like silent folk.

When William Wordsworth wrote that he would “sit and play with similes,” he came up with many names for the daisy.  He called it “a nun demure, of lowly port” and “a little Cyclops, with one eye.”  These, of course, are really metaphors used in that manner, but if Wordsworth had written instead, “The daisy is like a nun demure, of lowly port,” he would be using simile.

Where Robert Burns said in simile, “My love is like a red, red rose,” Robert Herrick instead chose metaphor — “You are a tulip seen today…”

There is no confusion, then, about what a metaphor is and what a simile is, and neither is to be found in good hokku as I teach it.

Yesterday I used this verse to demonstrate how some misunderstand and misinterpret hokku.  It is Bashō’s hokku:

Summer grasses –
All that remains
Of warriors’ dreams.

You, dear reader, know what metaphor is, and there is not the slightest trace of it to be found in that verse.  If Bashō had said instead

Warriors’ dreams–
They are only summer grasses
In the fields.

THAT would be metaphor.  But of course that is not what Basho wrote, just a rewriting to make his verse fit Western metaphor.

In an earlier posting, I mentioned another old hokku of Bashō that is commonly misinterpreted as metaphor.  Let’s look at it again, because it reveals the technique that was really used:

Kare eda ni   karasu no tomari-keri   aki no kure
Withered branch on   crow ga has-perched   autumn ‘s evening

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Some go wild with this one, finding it filled with metaphor.  The see it in terms of Western poetry instead of hokku aesthetics.

The verse, instead of being an example of metaphor in hokku, is instead a very good example of the principle of internal reflection.

To clarify, let’s look at the difference:

Metaphor is saying one thing is another.
Internal reflection is the combining of elements that reflect one another.

Here is how internal reflection works in this particular hokku:

We have these elements:

1.  A withered branch
2.  A perching crow
3.  An autumn evening

The branch, which is withered, is reflected in the autumn, which is the time of withering in Nature; further, evening is the time of day when Yang energies decline into night, so all these elements exhibit a loss of Yang energies.

The crow is black; this is reflected in the gathering darkness of the evening,

Everything in this verse, then, depicts a decline of Yang.  The crow has settled on the branch, reflecting the passivity of Yin; the darkness of the crow is Yin, as is the evening, as is the autumn, as is the withered branch.

One may alternatively translate aki no kure as “autumn’s end,” but the same principle still applies.  The end of autumn is a decline of Yang energies, a time of growing Yin.

It is just that simple.   We should not see metaphor in the verse, but rather the internal reflection that takes place among its component elements.

Now why do so many fail to see this?  It is because they have never been taught the importance and significance of the use of Yin and Yang in hokku, and how they are employed in internal reflection.  So they misinterpret the verse — as they misinterpret numbers of other hokku — as examples of metaphor, because they see it only in terms of what is already familiar to them, and what is familiar to them is the methodology of Western poetry and literature, which they then misapply to hokku.



There are some poems that are little-remembered, often because something is not quite right in them, but yet a line or a few lines will stick in the mind — though perhaps recalled not quite correctly — like the flash of a gemstone partly hidden in a matrix of lesser rock.

And then, when one tries to find such a poem, it is devilishly difficult!  Here is a prime example, by Gerald Louis Gould (1885-1936):


Beyond the East the sunrise, beyond the West the sea,
And East and West the wander-thirst that will not let me be;
It works in me like madness, dear, to bid me say good-by!
For the seas call and the stars call, and oh, the call of the sky!

The sun of course rises in the East, and if one lives in England, as Gould did, beyond the land to the West lies the sea.  The writer is afflicted with “itchy feet” — he feels an irresistible urge to wander, to see the sea and what is beyond, to see stars over new fields, the skies over distant hills.

I know not where the white road runs, nor what the blue hills are,
But man can have the sun for friend, and for his guide a star;
And there’s no end of voyaging when once the voice is heard,
For the river calls and the road calls, and oh, the call of a bird!

He does not know where the white road he travels will take him.  Gould studied at Oxford University in Oxfordshire, which has chalk beds that made early roads in the area white in the sun.  One still sees such roads in places where limestone, chalk and marble predominate in the geology — at least the smaller rural roads without asphalt.  Nor does he know what the blue hills in the distance might be.  But he is called to find out.

A traveller may go alone, but the sun travels with him, and the stars have been directional guides since ancient times.  Once one gets the “wanderlust,” there is no end to traveling.   Rivers call one onward, as do roads, and even the free-spirited call of a bird seems a summons to adventure.

Yonder the long horizon lies, and there by night and day
The old ships draw to home again, the young ships sail away;
And come I may, but go I must, and if men ask you why,
You may put the blame on the stars and the sun and the white road and the sky!

The horizon is both physical and metaphorical.  It is the point from which one enters unknown territory, that which is beyond the known and familiar.  Here Gould uses it metaphorically for the beginning and ending point of human life.  The old ships — that is people coming to the end of the journey of life’s adventure, return to home again, and for them the horizon is rest and life’s end.  The young ships are the youthful individuals just setting out on the voyage of life, and for them the horizon is the beginning of life and adventure.

Our writer is determined to make the most of his time, so though he may stop at a place and stay a while, inevitably he must be off again to continue his travels.  We can also say this of life.  We may come into this life and stay a while, but it is also inevitable that we must go out of it again.  Time never pauses.  But our writer here speaks primarily of non-metaphorical adventuring, his boundless urge to travel.  If anyone asks why he cannot stay, his reply is that one may blame the stars and the sun, the white road and the sky — all call him to adventure.

I first encountered this poem years ago, when I was interested in the life and wanderings of the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli-Levy, herself a wanderer in life.  But what struck me was only these lines:

Yonder the long horizon lies, and there by night and day
The old ships draw to home again, the young ships sail away;

Why those?  I suppose because they encompass so much in so small a space as metaphor.  In those two lines is all of life — youth and old age, the cycle of setting forth on the voyage of life in youth, and inevitably, at last, coming home in old age to end one’s voyaging days.  It is life and death.

Nothing in the rest, unfortunately, quite matches the strength of those two lines, and that is perhaps why the poem is so little known today, though I must admit I have been surprised by the numbers of people coming here in search of it.



Yesterday we looked at this verse by Hokushi:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure

Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

In contrast, Yaha wrote:

Karakasa no    hitotsu sugiyuku   yuki no kure
Umbrella ‘s      one         passes-by  snow ‘s evening

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening.

This illustrates an important principle of hokku, related to its aspect of poverty.  The less we present in a hokku, the stronger the effect.  By “effect” we mean that all-important feeling of significance.  One umbrella passing on a snowy evening has more perceived significance than many umbrellas.  It has to do with the focus of attention, which is dispersed among many similar things in one case, but focused on a single thing in the second.  That is why in translating hokku, even though Japanese had no difference between singular and plural nouns, we nonetheless generally translate in the singular rather than the plural, except in the case of things that normally come in groups, such as clouds and raindrops.

To state the principle quite simply, one thing in hokku has a greater perceived significance than many things.  One can easily see that this relates to another principle of hokku, which is the avoidance of simile and metaphor.  Why?  Because they divide the attention between the “real” thing and the object with which it is being likened.  What underlies both of these — one thing instead of many, no metaphor or simile — is not dividing the attention of the reader.  The less divided the attention, the stronger the effect, the perceived significance, which is exactly what we see when looking at these two verses of Hokushi and Yaha.



I have to confess that years of involvement with hokku have made me very leery of metaphor and simile in verse.  You will recall that metaphor is saying that one thing is another — for example when people say “We are just two ships passing in the night.”  Simile means that one thing is like another  (just think of the word “similar”), for example, “He stands like a rock.”

In hokku we do not use metaphor or simile, because doing so divides our attention.  So in hokku we let things be what they are.  The moon is the moon, not a “silent messenger of the night,” or whatever one might dream up.

And as I said, the effect of this, over time, is that we become more sensitive to the use of metaphor and simile in other kinds of verse, finding it in general a distraction and a detraction.  More and more, we just want a writer to let things be as they are.

There was an interesting fellow named William Sharp who wrote verses in the latter half of the 19th century.  Sometimes his language was a little too archaic and anachronistically Elizabethan, but many of his verses showed real promise.  All too often, however, they are spoiled by simile, as in the first few lines of The Wind at Fidenae:

Fresh from the Sabines
The Beautiful Hills,
The wind bloweth.
Down o’er the slopes,
Where the olives whiten
As though the feet
Of the wind were snow-clad:
Out o’er the plain
Where a paradise of wild blooms waveth,
And where, in the sunswept
Leagues of azure,
A thousand larks are
As a thousand founts
‘Mid the perfect joy of
The depth of heaven.

“Bloweth?”  “Waveth”?”  No one really talked like that in the latter half of the 19th century, but all too often such archaicisms were looked on as “poetic” language.

And then there are lines like

“As though the feet of the wind
Were snow-clad.”

One could get away with that if one happened to be an ancient Greek or Roman, when the forces of Nature were simultanously phenomena and gods or goddesses — like “Rosy-fingered Dawn.”  But it did not really work in the 19th century, nor does it work today.

The wind does not have snow-clad feet, nor, in spite of Carl Sandburg, does fog come on little cat feet.  Do you see how the moment one adds these, the mind becomes divided between the real thing — between the wind and snow-clad feet, between fog and the feet of a cat?  The mind can only work with one image at a time, so simile and metaphor force us to split our attention, which detracts from the thing itself.

So when I read Sharp, I find myself wanting to rewrite him, to take out the Elizabethan language and the similes, perhaps ending with something like

Fresh from the Sabines
The Beautiful Hills,
The wind blows.
Down o’er the slopes
Where the olives whiten,
Out to the plain
Where the wild blooms wave;

You get the idea.

In hokku we do not divide the attention with metaphor and simile.  Instead we combine elements into a unity.  Often there is a setting — the wider environment in which something happens.  Within that setting there is the subject of the verse, and that subject acts or is acted upon.  In this combining of elements there is no division of the attention, no detracting from any of the elements.  Each is simply what it is, and in that is the simplicity and the effectiveness of hokku.