shanshuiWhat do those Chinese characters mean?

Though I do not mention it often, some of you may know that I call my “school” of hokku writing (the kind of hokku I teach and advocate) the “Mountain Water” school.  And that is precisely what the two characters above mean.  The first means “mountain” and the second “water.”

Why did I choose this name in English?  I did so not only because I like it, but also because it is a way of recalling the very old heritage of the aesthetics embodied in the kind of hokku I teach, aesthetics which historically go back to old Japan and even to China centuries earlier.

The name “Mountain Water,” when seen in that long perspective, is very rich in meaning.

First, the combination of the two Chinese characters 山 水 (shān shuǐ) is the common term used for a landscape (as in landscape painting).  A landscape painting in China commonly is a painting of mountains (山) and water (水). 


By extension, 水 also means “river / rivers.”  So when we think of a Chinese landscape painting, we generally think of mountains and streams, waterfalls, pools, lakes, or rivers.  A secondary meaning of 山 水 is quite literally “mountain water,” that is, water of the mountains, like a spring bubbling up out of rocks in the hills.  And that makes the meaning of my hokku school name even deeper, because mountain water is usually fresh, clear, and pure.  That is how hokku should be.  Though it is a centuries-old form of verse, hokku we write today should be fresh and clear, pure and simple.

But the meaning goes even deeper than that.  You may recall that I have said one could call the kind of hokku I teach and advocate “Yin Yang” hokku, because of the importance of the two basic elements of Yin and Yang in writing and reading it.  In a Chinese landscape, the mountains (山) rising into the sky exemplify the Yang element, and the waters (水) falling from the hills or lying in pools and streams are the Yin element.  So the name “Mountain Water School” also signifies the importance of Yin and Yang in the hokku tradition, and in hokku as I teach it.

The Japanese hokku was very strongly influenced by the old literature of China, particularly the poetry of the Tang Dynasty.  And though the hokku form developed in Japan, its aesthetics can be traced back many centuries in China. And do not forget that traditionally, hokku in Japan was written in a combination of borrowed Chinese characters and native Japanese phonetic symbols.  Take for example the famous “Old Pond” hokku of Bashô.  Of the 11 symbols  in which it is written, seven are Chinese, and only four are Japanese phonetic symbols.

You will recall that the verse is:


The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

The word for water here (水) is the same character used to write “Mountain Water.”  It is pronounced mizu in the case of Bashô’s verse, and in other cases sui, which pronunciation is also borrowed from Chinese.

So now you know the origin of the name for the kind of hokku I teach — the “Mountain Water” school of hokku.

As an aside, if you are familiar with Japanese ink painting (which was borrowed from the Chinese), you may have heard it called suiboku.  Here is that term as printed:


The first character, as you now know, is 水, “water” ( with the sui pronunciation in Japanese); the second character, 墨, pronounced boku in Japanese, is the Chinese character meaning “black ink.”  So a suiboku-ga is literally a ” water-black ink” painting.  And anyone who has ever practiced that art or watched it, knows that is precisely what it is — a painting done in ink made by grinding a black ink stick in water on an inkstone.



Unlike most other kinds of verse, the hokku is linked with the season in which it is written.  In fact one can say truthfully that whatever the obvious subject of a hokku, the real subject is the season in which it is written, and the “obvious” subject is just a manifestation of that season.

This reflects the spiritual roots of hokku and the view that things are not isolated phenomena, but are interconnected in  innumerable ways.  So interconnected, in fact, that an object or an event cannot exist in isolation, but only as a part of the Whole.  So when Bashō writes of a frog jumping into an old pond, this is as a manifestation of and expression of the season of spring.  If one does not know that, one does not know the entire verse.  And most Westerners do not know that, because the seasonal connection is lost in transmission.

In old hokku, however, there was really only one way to know definitely the season of a given verse, and that was to have memorized a long and detailed glossary of recognized “season words,” called kigo 季語 (ki = season, go = ) in Japanese.  If a given topic was not to be found in such accepted lists, it was simply not a subject for a verse.  And to recognize the season of any verse and to write within the system required minimally six years or more of diligent study and familiarity before one could begin to use the “season word” technique with any facility.

Further, if one had not memorized the long list of acceptable words and their appropriate seasons, one had to refer to a glossary of season words in order to identify the season of any given hokku.  Such a lengthy glossary was called a saijiki 歳時記 (sai = year, ji = time, ki =  record), which we can simply call a “season book.”  The season book listed the accepted kidai 季題 (ki = season, dai = subject) and as a subcategory for each season subject, the kigo, the season words, rather like a theme and variations.

All of this, of course, meant that the writing of old hokku was no simple matter.  In fact passing time only brought increasing complexity to this system, and in addition, for all practical purposes, it limited the range of one’s subject matter to the accepted themes and season words.  If one read a verse without recognizing the season inherent in it, one was obviously neither ready to read hokku nor to write it.

To those of us writing hokku today this seems like an unreasonable and intolerable burden, and though it had its advantages, they were far outweighed by its complexities.  It is perhaps somewhat surprising, then, that Masaoka Shiki continued this season word system after his much-publicized re-packaging of the hokku as his “haiku.”

In modern haiku, which as readers here know I consider largely a degeneration and distortion of the hokku, there are two approaches to season.  The great majority of writers simply ignore it, having divorced the modern haiku from season entirely.  A lesser number attempt to re-create the bulky season word system in a Western context, and there are actually those who are busy compiling new “season books” in English, which given the geographical, climatic, and biological complexity of the United States alone, is a somewhat eccentric undertaking.  And of course attempting to establish such a complex season word system in the West merely revives all of its associated problems, one of the most obvious of which is that no one outside the little group of writers using one of these new “season books” will have the slightest idea what the season of many of the poems written under it represent, because the general public  will not be part of the tiny “in group” using a given “season word” book.

Modern hokku, by great contrast, solves the matter of seasonal association of a verse in a remarkably simple, practical, and straightforward manner.  By doing so it maintains the virtues of the traditional seasonal connection of old hokku without the needless and rather pointless complexities and eccentricities of creating new “Western” season words and season books.

The modern hokku system is simply to mark each verse with the season in which it is written.  A writer will categorize all of his or her hokku by these seasonal markings into the categories of “Spring,” “Summer,”  “Autumn” (or “Fall”), and “Winter.”  When a verse is shared or published, the seasonal categorization goes with it.  It is such an eminently useful and practical and productive system that writers should immediately see its superiority to the old “season words” system.

As we have seen, the real subject of every hokku is its season.  The four-word seasonal categorization system simply utilizes this fact.  So if one were to use Bashō’s hokku as an example, it would appear like this when written:


The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

And of course if it were to appear in an anthology, all “Spring” verses would appear under that initial heading, and the same procedure would follow with Summer, Autumn, and Winter categories.

Somewhat astonishingly, this reduces the thousands of season words necessary to reading and writing hokku with any comprehension under the old system to simply four — Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter — and these function simply as headings for a single verse or for an anthology of verses.

Thus in one fell swoop modern hokku demolishes and improves upon the season word system that caused so much needless complexity in old hokku and that continues to be pointlessly revived with its needless complexities in some segments of modern haiku.  Yet in doing so it does not abandon the essence of the matter — it retains firmly and with great practicality the indissoluble link between hokku and the seasons.  That has always been the practice in modern hokku in English:  To preserve the essence of old hokku at its best, without being slavishly literal in its transmission.  That is why modern hokku in English can be thoroughly American or British or Australian or Indian, etc., without abandoning the genuine essentials of hokku, and without any need for maintaining any of the culturally-limited baggage that potentially so hinders the verse form in its transmission from one culture to another and very different culture.



In the past I have talked about the four kinds of verse, which can further be reduced to two kinds:

1.  The “facts” of the verse viewed subjectively.

2.  The “facts” of the verse viewed objectively.

An important stage in the development of one’s understanding of hokku is the realization that these two categories apply to old hokku just as they do to other kinds of verse.  So we have “subjective” hokku and we have “objective” hokku.

Because the kind of hokku I teach and prefer is “objective” hokku, we need to know and recognize the difference.  We can find both kinds even within the verses of a single writer, for example in the hokku of Bashō:

There is the well-known verse:

The sea has darkened;
Cries of the wild ducks
Are faintly white.

That is, however, a hokku tainted with subjectivity.  Why?  Because we know that the cries of the ducks are sounds, and sounds cannot be “faintly white.”  There is an exception for the very, very tiny number of people who experience synesthesia, who are able to “see” colors — but we have no evidence that Bashō or any of his readers had that ability.  We must say, then, that Bashō has phrased the hokku in this way to make it obviously “poetic,” that is, to add his fantasy to it instead of just letting it be what it is.

Bashō also wrote:

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the tree shade.

Bashō saw an historically-significant flute at Suma Temple, and he tells us he heard the sound of that unblown flute.  Well, no, he did not.  What he heard at best was a sound he imagined in his mind, leaving aside the issue of how this verse borrows from an old waka verse.  What Bashō has done is to take the silent flute and to romanticize it, to add from his own fantasy to consciously make it more “poetic.”

And of course Bashō also wrote:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

That, by contrast, is an objective verse, without the added fantasy of the writer.  Now some might say, “Well, Bashō did not really see this exact event, so he did use fantasy,” and they would be right.  But the distinction we want to make here is between those verses that use obvious additions from the imagination for “poetic” effect in contrast to those verses that are — or in the case of this last verse, that seem — to be entirely without the addition of fantasy from the imagination of the writer.  In other words there is nothing “untrue” about the experience of seeing a frog jump into an old pond and hearing the watery “plop!”  But there is something untrue in saying that the cries of wild ducks are “faintly white,” or that one hears an “unblown flute.”  We know right away that neither of these things is “true” to reality, and that is the distinction we make in hokku between subjective, “”untrue” hokku supplemented from fantasy to make them seem more poetic, and objective, “true” hokku that do not say anything out of keeping with the way things are in reality.

Now note this:  The truth of hokku does not mean a verse happened exactly the way the writer gives it.  But the writer must not put anything in it that could not have been experienced in just the way the hokku presents it.  In other words, Bashō may have seen a frog jump into water at some time, and he may have tried to come up with a fitting first line, trying different settings, such as mentioning a kind of flowering shrub.  But in any case, he finally decided on “The old pond” as the appropriate setting.  And the verse has a “true” effect when read.

Remember that in writing hokku, we use the principle of the old Chinese painters — that one went out into nature, looking at mountains and rivers, trees and birds, blossoms and stones, studying their character.  And then one went home and composed an ink painting using the character of the elements one had seen.  The painter likely did not see precisely the landscape in the final painting.  But because he had studied the nature of these things, back in his studio he could combine them into paintings that have the effect of being “true.”

It is the same with hokku.  We write from actual experience, but a particular hokku may combine experiences from more than one occasion, in order to express the character of a season.  But what we cannot do in the kind of hokku I teach is to add fantasies from our imagination that make a hokku obviously “untrue.”  For example, if I write a spring verse about apple blossoms, and throw in that I hear the whistling of Johnny Appleseed as I view them, then obviously I am adding fantasy, and am being “untrue” in hokku.

This matter of adding fantasy from the imagination to a verse, throwing over it what Wordsworth called the “coloring of the imagination,” is very important in understanding the aesthetics behind our kind of hokku — objective hokku — which carefully avoids adding such coloring of the imagination.

Why?  Because our verse is contemplative hokku.  We want to be faithful to Nature and to its character, so we cannot simply add fantasies to events to make them seem more romantic, more “poetic.”  In our kind of hokku the poetry is not on the page, it is in the sensory experience of the verse — touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing.  When one has that, one needs nothing more.

I hope readers will think carefully about this, and will look again at old hokku by different authors to see which are “true” hokku, and which are “untrue.”



I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Yesterday we saw a verse that, while dealing with emotion, treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.



Issa wrote:

Waga kado e    shiranande hairu    kawazu kana
My       gate   e unknowing coming-in  frog     kana

My gate unaware —
A frog.

Six words.

The whole point of the verse lies in the word “unaware.”

Our world is a “people” world in which frogs are found.  A frog’s world is a frog world in which people are found.

It makes one wonder of what we are unaware.

Notice the difference between this “frog” verse and the famous one by Bashō:  In Issa’s verse, there is an observer (indicated by “my gate”) and an observed (the entering frog).  In Bashō’s verse, however, there is only

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

There is no writer-frog separation.  One could say there is no writer-old pond-frog separation.  The subject (the writer) has disappeared, has become the object (that written about), so that a “twoness” becomes a oneness.



The previous posting dealt with the correct translation of Bashō’s spring “Old Pond” hokku into English.  But what is significant for us is understanding the verse as an example of hokku.

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

Unlike most hokku, in English (not in Japanese) this one has a double pause, indicated by the punctuation at the ends of lines one and two.  This is usually not done, but it can be done when appropriate, as here.

You will recall that the sense of the verse — following the Japanese more literally — is:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

That, of course, needs only one pause.  But for the effect we want in English, it requires two:

First, the firm, strong pause at the end of line one, which enables the reader to see and experience the old pond without hurry, before moving on to the next line.

Second, the dash at the end of line two, which gives us a very quiet and smooth connective transition (note how a dash is more connective than a semicolon in feeling):

A frog jumps in —

And we finish with the final line and a period:

The sound of water.

It is important to note that if we did not do this, the verse might be open to the same kind of peculiar misinterpretation that I corrected for a reader in yesterday’s posting, the notion that the frog is jumping into “the sound of water.”  So it is not:

A frog jumps in the sound of water

but rather

A frog jumps in — the sound of water.

Just that brief connective pause makes all the difference.  Punctuation is so endlessly useful in hokku!

You will recall that we introduced a second and structurally-similar verse, Ryūshi’s “Stillness” hokku, which in Japan is a winter verse, but more appropriate to late autumn in my region:

The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

It is not hard to see that this is very much the form of the “Old Pond” in a more literal translation:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

The structure in English, in fact, is virtually identical.

The lesson to be learned from this is that by using and varying appropriate patterns, hokku never becomes old-fashioned or out-of-date.  It can always be the vessel that holds a new experience, even if it is presented in a very old pattern.

And notice too the effect of both verses.  Each begins with something still and lasting:

The old pond;

And then in that “stable” setting something brief and more obviously transient happens:

The sound of a frog jumping into the water.
The sound of a bird walking on fallen leaves.

It is, as everyone can see and is shown by the fame of the “Old Pond” verse, a very effective approach.  Essentially what we see is:

Return to stillness.

That pattern has a very deep and unspoken — even un-speak-able — meaning.