Issa wrote a spring “question” hokku about violets:


Who was it
That lived here before me?
The violets….

“The violets” is not an answer to his question, but rather the context.  He is wondering what kind of people were there before him and saw the violets of previous springs, as he sees them now.  But it is just a question that, as in all “question” hokku, expects no answer.  It is the feeling aroused by the question itself that is the point of the verse.

I happen to live in an area that used to be a forest, and children of a century ago picked wildflowers in those vanished woods.  Now it is houses, but between my dwelling and that of my neighbor, the wild violets still bloom in the spring, whether noticed or not, whether appreciated or unappreciated.  I could not help thinking of those vanished children of generations ago seeing the violets here, and now I — under greatly changed circumstances — still see them blooming.





Today I am going to combine some things I have talked about lately:

First is the “Question” hokku, the whole point of which is to ask a question — or raise a question — that remains unanswered.

Shiki wrote a verse which I shall rearrange slightly to better fit English:

On the sandy beach,
Why is a fire being lit?
The summer moon.

Again, the whole point of such a verse is to have us experience — through the elements of the verse — a question that remains unanswered.  It is that feeling of not knowing that is the whole point of a “question” hokku.  To answer the question would ruin the verse.

The second recent topic is that of song lyrics as commonly unrecognized or undervalued poetry.  I have pointed out that song lyrics, which for convenience I call poems/songs, are often not even mentioned when the subject of poetry is raised, because they are somehow seen as “not real poetry.”  But in contrast to that, I also pointed out how in most cultures, poems that today are read silently or aloud were originally sung.  That combines the musicality — the sound and rhythm — of words in a poem with the music of the singing voice, often accompanied by one or more musical instruments.

There is a conflict then — something that makes no sense — when we read through hundreds of pages in an anthology of poetry and find that virtually none of the recent verses included are the poems that are song lyrics.  This is often simply unrealistic snobbery on the part of the compiler or compilers.

But back to the topic.  Just as we find the raising of an unanswered question significant in “question” hokku, we also find it significant in a good longer poem/song.  As an example, here is a rather remarkable poem — originally sung — called “Ode to Billy Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry:

It was the third of June,
another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton
and my brother was balin’ hay.
And at dinner time we stopped,
and we walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet.”
And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas,
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please.”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.
“Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billy Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
And now you tell me Billy Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today,
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way,
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe.
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Wow.  One could hardly find a verse more effective in setting mood, in raising questions that forever remain unanswered.  And the plain, southern “country” language of the writer is very effective.  The whole poem has a hot, weary air that is only heightened when sung.  And the phrasing is so true to life — no “fancy” language here:

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.”


There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything

Look at the effective use of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and repetition of two-syllable words at the very beginning, in setting the tired, drowsy overall atmosphere of the poem:

It was the third of June,
Another sleepy, dusty delta day.

Is it any wonder that the general public has lost interest in much of what is offered in contemporary anthologies and journals as poetry today?  It has all too often become over-intellectualized, over-thought, and has frequently lost the “life” that we see, somewhat paradoxically, in poems such as “Ode to Billy Joe.”



In hokku aesthetics, we find that it often favors that which is undecided, undetermined, incomplete.  We see that in two verses which superficially appear very different.  The first is by Chora:

The summer moon;
On the other side of the river —
Who is it?

Old readers here will immediately recognize this as a “question” hokku, a verse in which the whole point is that the question remains unanswered, leaving us with that “not-knowing” feeling.

Taigi wrote a verse that is not a question hokku:

The bridge fallen,
People stand on the bank;
The summer moon.

Blyth — because the people are standing on a bank — assumes that the bridge has washed away, and in fact he so translates it.  But the point I want to make here is that we see the bridge has collapsed; we see the people on the bank staring at where it had been.  What will they do? How will they cross?  How will it affect their lives?  None of this is told us.  We are left with that uncertainty, that sense of “not-knowing,” and here you see precisely what this verse has in common with a “question” hokku, even though it is not a question hokku.  Both have that sense of something unanswered, unfinished, incomplete.  And it is that particular feeling that such hokku wish to evoke.

It is worth mentioning in passing that hokku avoids violence and disasters.  Occasionally we will find something rather borderline, like Chora’s verse about the fallen bridge, but it is not really over the boundary, and its point, as already mentioned, is in what the verse evokes.

We can see, however, that when people began to change the hokku into something else near the beginning of the 20th century, an un-hokku-like harshness was introduced, as in this verse by Shiki, who in this case crosses the line into a kind of verse alien to the spirit of the hokku:

Without a home —
Twenty thousand people;
The summer moon.

Shiki wrote this about the great fire of Takaoka, apparently that in 1900.  This is more journalism than verse.  The catastrophe and its scope are not right for the aesthetics of hokku, and this, along with the gradual and increasing introduction of technology, led to new kinds of verse that diverged ever more sharply from the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.

But of course these later kinds of verse increasingly and rapidly lost also the influence of Buddhist spirituality.  That is why we make a clear distinction between the aesthetics of hokku and those of other kinds of verse that may have been loosely inspired by or descended from the hokku.

Incidentally, all three of these verses may be found on two facing pages in Blyth.  All but the first are my translations.  The first — by Chora — is in Blyth’s translation, which one can hardly better.




Edward Richard Burton Shanks wrote a poem titled “A Night-Piece” in the “Georgian” period of English poetry (1910-1936) — a work a bit overlong that ends with these words:

Again . . . again! The faint sounds rise and fail.
So far the enchanted tree, the song so low . . .
A drowsy thrush? A waking nightingale?
——Silence. We do not know.

That is often the way of poetry.  It says too much.  It speaks when silence is more appropriate and more significant.  It does not know when and where to stop.

The most important part of the last stanza is this:

A drowsy thrush? A waking nightingale?

But then the poet spoils it all by saying

——Silence. We do not know.

Hokku, in one of its frequent patterns, does not make that mistake.  I am speaking of the “question” hokku, the essence of which is to ask a question that not only remains unanswered but should not and must not be answered.  That is because the whole point of a question hokku is the feeling one gets from not knowing, “The Unanswered Question,” as the American composer Charles Ives titled one of his works.

The question hokku avoids the finality of knowing.  Knowing ends a multitude of possibilities.

Bashō wrote one of the best-known question hokku:

Hana no kumo   kane wa ueno ka asakusa ka
Blossom ‘s cloud  bell wa Ueno ?  Asakusa ?

A cloud of blossoms;
Is the bell Ueno?
Is it Asakusa?

The first line “A cloud of blossoms” gives us the wider setting of the verse.  It is spring, and cherry blossoms are everywhere.  Through this cloud of blossoms comes the deep tone of a sounding bell.  Where does it come from?  One cannot tell.  Is it from a temple at Ueno?  Or one at Asakusa?

To tell us would spoil the verse completely, would ruin its point, which is just that feeling of not knowing.

We could take Shanks’ lines and make them into a proper hokku:

The distant wood;
A drowsy thrush?
A waking nightingale?

One does not, of course, need a question on each of two lines, as in Bashō and in our reworked Shanks.  One need only be sure that the question mark is placed so as to leave the reader with the unanswered question:

Let’s look at an out-of-season verse by Ōemaru:

Meeting the cow
I sold last year;
The autumn wind.

That verse also relies on the feeling it arouses in the reader.  But we can get another interesting feeling by making a question hokku of it:

Is that the cow
I sold last year?
The autumn wind.

Which one uses will depend on the feeling one wishes to convey.  Notice that we do not need to tell the reader what to feel.  He or she just feels it upon reading each of these verses.  That is the virtue of not saying too much, one of the many virtues of the hokku.




There is something very mysterious and significant about a question.

In the Zen sect, one major practice is the continual asking of an internal question — “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” perhaps, or “What was my true face before I was born?”

These are questions that cannot be ended by an ordinary response.  In fact, one must go beyond all intellectual and logical and rational answers, beating one’s head against the wall of the question again and again, hour after hour, week after week, perhaps even year after year until finally — if all is favorable — all at once the wall falls of itself and the answer beyond words is revealed.

The spiritual practice advocated by Ramana Maharshi, the noted south Indian saint of the early 20th century, was asking one’s self continuously “Who am I?”  Again, all ordinary answers had to be put aside, because it is the ongoing state of questioning that will finally — again if one is fortunate — lead to realization.

In the Western tale of the Holy Grail, we find the naive young Parzival witnessing a strange ritual in the Grail Castle.  He sees the wounded Fisher King, and he sees the Grail brought in, glowing with its own light.  He is supposed to ask “Whom does the Grail serve?” but fails to do so.  In Jungian psychology this is very significant– it is the equivalent of failing to ask the meaning of life.  The question need not be answered to be effective — but like the questions of Zen and Ramana Maharshi, it must be posed and then the matter will develop.

We find parallels again and again between hokku and the higher levels of spiritual practice and realization, but though there are parallels, I caution again that no one ever became enlightened by reading or writing hokku.  Nonetheless, the questioning state is held so highly in hokku that there is a specific category devoted only to posing a question that remains unanswered, as in this Autumn verse of Kitō, which I give here in a translation very close to that of R. H. Blyth:

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

The whole effect of such a hokku lies in the state of unknowing generated by the question that is asked but not answered.  That is why in question hokku, an answer is neither given nor expected.  It is only that focused state brought about by the question — that heightened condition of not knowing — that we want.

It is written in the Cloud of Unknowing,

“That right as bi the defailing of oure bodely wittes, we
bigine redeliest to kom to knowing of goostli thinges…”

“That just as by the failure of our bodily wits, we begin most readily to come to knowing of spiritual things…”

In the same way the unanswered question of hokku opens us up to silence that is beyond the intellect, beyond questions.