What would a Japanese of Bashōs  time think of modern hokku?

First, he or she would no doubt be surprised to find it written in a language other than Japanese.

Second, he would probably also be surprised to find us writing hokku only as independent verses, and not, at times, as the first verse in a linked verse sequence.  In his day it could have been both.

Third, in indicating the season of a verse, he would note the change from the complicated and unwieldy old “season word” system to a simple seasonal heading preceding the verse.

Fourth, he might notice the significant absence of the allegorical in hokku, because old hokku, particularly when used as the first of a series of linked verses, were often used in an allegorical way to greet the host or hostess of a gathering for writing “communal” linked verse, or for other purposes.  And with this, he might notice the significant  prevalence of objectivity in modern hokku rather than subjectivity, which was more prevalent in old hokku — particularly those written by women in those days.

Fifth, he might notice that modern hokku are written in three lines rather than one, though that would not be entirely new to him, because old hokku were often separated into two or three lines when they were written on fans, etc.

Sixth, he would probably note the paucity of allusions in modern hokku, given that old hokku frequently alluded to lines from other literature, from historical or mythological events, and so on.

An additional difference is that modern hokku places a stronger emphasis on hokku written from actual experience of an event, rather than from composition “out of one’s head,” which was very common in old hokku when it was taught largely as the beginning part of the more complicated and communal practice of haikai no renga — the composing lined verses.

Modern hokku does differ in these respects from old Japanese hokku, but there is a good reason for all the differences.

The writing of modern “independent” hokku means that it is no longer a kind of poetry game or social composition event, as it was when practiced as linked verse.  The “season word” system was done away with because it made hokku too complex, and violates the principle of simplicity.  The allegorical or “double meaning” often found in old hokku was also dropped, because it lessens the focus by creating a second object in the mind.  Three lines are used because they provide an excellent format for hokku in English, making it not only visually pleasant but practical.  Allusion in hokku has generally been dropped because it requires not only a thorough literary knowledge but also complicates hokku, taking us away from its simplicity.

Writing from actual experience keeps us closer to Nature and its changes, and requires us to pay attention to things we might not ordinarily notice.

All of these differences return us to the essence of good hokku, which is to simply convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing context of the seasons.  Consequently needless complexities that obscure that simplicity and that clear purpose have been dropped, giving us modern hokku in English.

In old hokku, we might find such subjective verses as this one by Chiyo-ni (a female writer in the 1700s):

Plum blossom fragrance;
Where has she blown to —
The Snow Woman?

A “Snow Woman,” (Yuki Onna), in Japanese folklore, was a kind of uncanny spirit who appeared when it was snowing — somewhat like the “Snow Queen” in the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson.  If you have seen the Japanese movie Kwaidan, it has a segment with a Snow Woman.  As we can see,  Chiyo-ni’s verse takes us away from reality and into the imagination.  Chiyo-ni’s verse was intended to show us the transition from winter to spring.  Now that the plum is blossoming, she asks, what happened to the Snow Woman/the cold of winter?

But by contrast, this hokku by Chiyo-ni  would be acceptable as a very good modern hokku:

Picked up is moving;
Ebb tide.

That is also a spring verse, but here there is no imagination to distract from reality.  When the tide goes out and one picks up tiny shells, they begin to move, because the creatures in them are still alive.  This hokku gives us a strong impression of the experience, re-creating it within us.  We can see and feel the things moving in our hand.  It also conveys the sense of the growing active energy of spring.

By our standards, the first verse about the Snow Woman would not be acceptable as hokku, though it would fit the very loose and indistinct boundaries of modern haiku.  The second verse, however, makes a quite good example for teaching modern hokku.  Hokku should take us out of intellection and imagination and into Nature — to the experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  That is hokku at its best.






Today I would like to share two verses by the long-time writer of hokku, Charles Tuskey.  They are very expressive of autumn:

All day,
It is twilight;
Autumn rain.


The wild geese;
Sounding far off, they come —
Sounding far off, they go.


These two very effective examples remind us clearly of the fundamental definition of the aesthetics of the hokku — that it is a verse form expressing Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.  And they remind us that hokku at its best is a sensory experience.

I am very pleased that Chuck permitted me to post these verses.  They show that hokku can be written today that are as good as those written in the distant past.   They also show that though the hokku aesthetic tradition is centuries old, it enables one to produce verses that are fresh and timeless.



There is a very simple but highly suggestive hokku by Bonchō :

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

That is the form in English.

As you know, a hokku expresses a season, either spring, summer, fall (autumn) or winter.  It is not difficult to tell that this is a summer hokku, because the word “summer” is included.  But not all Japanese hokku are that simple.  Different seasons traditionally had their different topics, and these became so complicated that a kind of “season word” or topic guide called a saijiki was used, so writers and readers could make sure what topics were appropriate for a given season.  In modern English hokku, however, we make the seasonal connection by simply labeling a hokku with its season, thus avoiding the needless complexity of season words, which took years to properly learn.

So that is the first characteristic of a hokku: a seasonal context.

The second characteristic of a hokku is a separation between the two parts.  Every hokku has a long part and a short part.  The long part may be at the beginning or at the end.  The two parts in Japanese hokku are separated by a so-called “cutting word.”  If we look at Bonchō ‘s hokku in transliterated Japanese, we can see an example:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki
town-center wa thing ‘s smell YA summer’ s moon

The cutting word here is ya, which has no real meaning in itself, but instead emphasizes what precedes it, giving the reader time to experience it.  And what the reader is experiencing here is the town and its smells, which in this case form the longer part of the hokku.  Then comes the separating ya, what we call in English the “meditative pause.”  After seeing and smelling the first part of the hokku, we then see that it is all taking place under natsu no tsuki — under the summer moon.

In English-language hokku, our equivalent of a cutting word is a punctuation mark.  Punctuation indicates the length and nature of the meditative pause.  The most common separating mark in hokku is the semicolon (;),  but other marks are used when appropriate.

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

Note that in English-language hokku, there may be several punctuation marks in a verse, but only one is the real separating mark between the two parts, in this case the semicolon.  Every English-language hokku ends with appropriate punctuation as well.  This was of course not the case in old Japanese hokku, which did not have punctuation, though modern everyday Japanese has adopted it.

The thing to remember, then, is that modern English-language hokku uses punctuation for the separating mark, as well as when helpful elsewhere in a hokku.  And all hokku end with a suitable punctuation mark.

You probably noticed that each line of the hokku in English begins with a capital letter.  This was not the case in Japanese hokku, because Japanese had no upper and lower case letters as we know them.  Instead, it was written in a mixture of characters borrowed from Chinese with Japanese phonetic symbols.  A Chinese character could have more than one syllable, like the word ichi (“town”) in Bonchō‘s hokku.  Japanese phonetic symbols made one phonetic unit each, like na, ka, wa, and so on.  In Japanese, n could also be considered a separate phonetic unit if it ended a word.  So these phonetic units are not precisely the same as syllables in English.

Given that the standard length of a hokku was seventeen phonetic units (though some were a bit more or less), people made the mistake of thinking that they should have seventeen syllables in English.  But that was impractical, because Japanese and English are very different languages.  In English-language hokku, we simply keep our verses brief and very simple, and that fits our language much better than a strict number of syllables.

A very obvious difference between old Japanese hokku and modern English-language hokku  is the lineation — how a verse is arranged in lines.  Old Japanese hokku were written and printed in one vertical line for general purposes.  But in English we separate them into three short lines.  This fits our horizontal writing system far better, and has a more pleasing appearance.

Here is what Bonchō‘s hokku would have looked like in printed Japanese.   I have added a transliteration and further information to the right of the characters and phonetic symbols.
ichi   (town) Chinese character

naka  (center)  Chinese character

は wa   (grammatical particle) phonetic symbol

mono (thing) Chinese character

no possessive word;  phonetic symbol

に ni-  phonetic symbol

 o-    phonetic symbol

 -i   ni-0-i = nioi (smell)

ya  cutting mark

夏  natsu  (summer) Chinese character

no possessive word; phonetic symbol

tsuki (moon) Chinese character

So that is a Japanese hokku.  As you see, there was a contrast between the borrowed Chinese characters, each one of which might be pronounced in Japanese with more than one syllable, and the Japanese phonetic symbols (hiragana), which could be joined in sequence to form multi-syllabic words.

Let’s look again at the verse in transliteration:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki

Ichinaka is actually two words written in Chinese characters:

ichi normally means “market.”  When followed by the character 中 naka (center) , it is generally understood to mean “town” — in a town, in the center of a town.  If we wanted to, we could use the “market” meaning, in which case we could read the verse as:

In the marketplace,
The smell of things;
The summer moon.

Or we might want to rearrange it as:

In the marketplace,
The smells of everything;
The summer moon.

I actually prefer the “marketplace” reading to the “town” reading.

Notice that in the first alternate translation, I wrote “smell,” but in the second it is “smells.”  Japanese hokku makes no such distinctions, because it did not have a plural form.  so nioi can be translated either “smell” or “smells,” whichever seems appropriate.

I constantly repeat here that hokku have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  So in hokku, humans are found in the wider context of Nature.  In Bonchō‘s verse, we have the very human town or marketplace, but it is seen beneath “the summer moon,” which shows that the human activities are set in the context of Nature, even though we are in a town.  Keep in mind also that a town in Boncho’s day (he died in 1714) would have been free of the smell of car exhaust fumes.  Everything would have been much more natural smelling, a mixture of many kinds of faint and strong odors, whether pleasant or unpleasant.

Most people know about modern haiku, which developed out of hokku, largely as a Western misunderstanding of its nature and aesthetics.  As such, modern haiku is very recent.  I hope you have noticed the differences between hokku and most everything that is called “haiku” today.  Because haiku is often also written in three lines, many people think they are the same, but they are not.  Though many writers do it, it is important not to mislabel hokku “haiku.”  Haiku as it is practiced today is largely the result of Western writers misunderstanding the hokku in the middle of the 20th century, while hokku is centuries older.

Most modern haiku does not express a particular season (there are a few that still use a seasonal connection, but they are greatly in the minority).

Modern haiku does not necessarily have Nature and humans as a part of its subject matter.  Haiku can be written about anything, including modern technology, romance, sex, violence, strong emotions, personal thoughts and ideas, politics, etc.   Hokku, by contrast, avoids modern technology, violence, sex, romance, and in general things that disturb the mind.

Most modern haiku do not have a definite system of punctuation.  Some use a perfunctory hyphen, others use no punctuation at all.

Most modern haiku avoid capitalization at the beginning of lines.

Most modern haiku permit abstract thinking or intellectualization.  Hokku stays with things, rather than ideas about things or using things as symbols or metaphors.  In general one can say hokku prefers the concrete, while haiku permits the abstract.

Hokku in general is non-egocentric, avoiding emphasis on “I,” “my,” or “me.”  Modern haiku often emphasizes the individual — “my boyfriend,” “my girlfriend” — as well as personal emotions and views.  Hokku treats the individual the same way it treats a bird circling in the sky or a smooth stone in a river — objectively rather than subjectively.

Those are a few of the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  It is important to know the difference, because hokku has a definite aesthetic approach that one must follow if the verse is to be a hokku, while in modern haiku, the aesthetics vary greatly from individual to individual, with each person deciding what a haiku should be and how it should be written.  Consequently, “haiku” today is a vague umbrella term for many kinds of brief verse, while hokku describes a particular kind of verse in English, with a particular form and a definite aesthetic.  On this site I deal with hokku, mentioning modern haiku only to avoid confusion.





To the large numbers of  Westerners who began to read old hokku (usually misnamed “haiku”) in one or another English translation in the middle of the 20th century, it all looked so simple and quick.  All one had to do was to write a fast little poem in three lines, most likely in 17 syllables.  Of course that was a complete misunderstanding of the hokku that led to the creation of modern haiku, which tended to jettison completely any seasonal connection.

Modern hokku, however, saw the essential connection between hokku and the seasons in the old tradition, and kept it by simplifying it to remove the needless complexity and frequent artificiality of the overgrown “season word” system.

Ryôta (1718-1787) wrote this early autumn hokku:

Ie-ie ni   asagao sakeru   hazuki kana
house-house at morning-glory blooms leaf-month kana

At every house
A morning glory blooms;
The month of leaves.

The “month of leaves” was August.

There is a very similar verse by Buson (1716-1783)

Mura hyak-ko kiku naki kado mo mienu kana
Village hundred-houses chrysanthemum is-not gate also not-seen kana

A hundred-house village;
Not a gate to be seen
Without chrysanthemums.

The point of each verse is the popularity, in village life, of flowers that express and manifest the season.

In old hokku, both asagao (morning glory) and kiku (chrysanthemum) were words that indicated the season of autumn when used within a verse.  Today, of course, we follow the simplified hokku method of just categorizing each verse by season.  Otherwise we would be stuck, as modern Japanese “haiku” writers are (at least those who maintain a seasonal connection — most American haiku writers do not), with a list of some five thousand or more season words to deal with, not to mention seasonal attributions often far more artificial than the more natural connection of morning glories and chrysanthemums with autumn.

The result is that Ryôta’s hokku, if written today as a modern hokku, would appear like this:

Morning glory flower, species Ipomoea nil


At every house
A morning glory blooms;

The month of leaves.

That way, no one writing hokku now needs to memorize long lists of season words or to go through the needless complexities that such a system creates for both reader and writer.

Of course, being Westerners, we would no longer say “month of leaves.”  Instead, we might come up with something like this:


At every house
A morning glory blooms;
Autumn begins.






Red Apple. Used white paper behind apple and a...

As I never cease repeating here, it is extremely important not to confuse hokku and haiku.  People in the modern haiku community like to say that haiku is just the “new name” for hokku.  I consider that quite mistaken.

If, for example, you write little three-line verses that are not set in a particular season, you are writing modern haiku, not hokku.  You are not even writing haiku as it was practiced by the fellow who began haiku — Masaoka Shiki.  Instead you are writing modern haiku as it is practiced by large numbers of largely self-taught people who have never understood the history and principles of the hokku, or even those of the kind of haiku Shiki wrote.  What they are writing is essentially just a little verse of some kind in three lines.

As I have said many times, even though in modern hokku we keep the essential connection with the seasons, we do not practice hokku precisely as did the old Japanese writers.  There is a very good reason for this.  In old hokku, a system of using “season words” developed.  “Season word” use was not just the indication of the season of a verse by including the name of a month or the name of a season.  It was done by using particular words that by themselves came to be understood as appropriate in hokku only to a certain season.  An obvious one, for example, was “plum blossoms” indicating a verse was a spring verse.  That makes sense.  But many season words were not obvious at all.  For example, a hokku using the term “ebb tide” was also a spring verse; so were verses using “the hazy moon.”

As you might guess, this system became very complicated, so complicated that it eventually took dictionaries of season words and years of study to learn them all and how to use them.  You might think, given that Shiki is considered the originator of the haiku, that Shiki would have simplified matters.  Actually, just the opposite is true.  As R. H. Blyth writes, “In Shiki’s monumental Complete Classified Collection of Haiku there is such an excess of system that the poetry is swamped by it.  For example, there are no less than fifty classes of fans alone.”  By “classes of fans” he means divisions of fans used as season words.  And remember, that is just fans.

Very few people writing modern haiku still use season words.  There has been, in the past few years, an effort to encourage their use among some haiku writers, and even attempts  to compile big lists of “international” season words, but the result is just to bring back the complexity that helped to spoil the hokku originally, and to make it far less spontaneous over the years.  And in any case, most modern writers of haiku do not use the season word system at all, in any form.

The problem then, is this:  If, historically, hokku has always been seasonal verse — with verses connected to and expressing particular seasons of the year — how does one practice it today without the complexity of learning huge numbers of season words, a situation made vastly more complicated now than it was even in the late days of the old hokku?  If one abandons the seasonal connection, it should be obvious that one is no longer writing hokku, but instead modern haiku.

The answer is really very simple.  We cut through the Gordian knot of the problem by simply classifying every hokku we write by the season in which it was written.  A spring hokku is marked “spring”; a summer hokku “summer” and autumn/fall hokku is marked “autumn” or “fall”; and a winter hokku is marked “winter.”  Whenever a hokku is shared or printed, that seasonal classification goes with it.

That eliminates with one blow the needless complexity old hokku developed over time, and it maintains the essential connection of hokku and the seasons that makes it hokku and not modern haiku.

Of course there are numerous other differences between hokku and modern haiku, many of which I have discussed in past postings here.  But the point I want to make today is that hokku without a seasonal connection is not hokku.   One might say that if one takes from the hokku its principles and aesthetics and standards, what is left is modern haiku, like the pulp that is left when the juice is pressed from an apple.  In hokku we want the apple, full and entire.