My purpose is not to discuss Chinese poetry in any academic sense.  Instead, it is to show how certain characteristics of old Chinese Nature poetry may be used in writing English Nature poetry.

The most significant of these tools is, as I have written previously, the use of “essential words” in composing lines in couplet form that when joined together with more couplets enable us to create a poem either short or long.

To show how this is done, I sometimes use old Chinese poems as examples.  Do not let them in any way intimidate you.  I do not expect anyone reading here to learn Chinese, because my purpose, again, is the writing of poetry in English.  But in doing so, there are things to be learned from certain examples of old Chinese poetry.

Here, for example, is the short poem Night Mooring at Maple Bridge, by Zhang Ji, who lived in the 8th century (you may also see his name transliterated as Chang Chi in older writings).  It might be helpful to see visually how these “essential words” manifest as Chinese characters in the original.  The poem is a seven-character example in four lines.  It is read from right to left, and from top to bottom.  The fifth line at far right gives first the name of the poem (the first four characters top to bottom) and below that are the two characters for the name of the writer, Zhang Ji:

In presenting this in its essential words in English, I will write it left to right, horizontally:

Moon set crow cry frost fill sky;
River maple fish lights to anxious sleep.
Gu Su wall outside Cold Mountain Temple;
Night middle bell sound reach visitor boat

That looks a bit cryptic in English, and quite honestly, Chinese poems are often somewhat cryptic even in Chinese, meaning that they are written in old literary Chinese, which is condensed compared to modern Chinese.  But that is precisely why they correspond to our “essential words” in English.  Readers familiar with Chinese verses in translation will already be aware that there are multiple ways of translating them because of their compressed and often ambiguous language.

Nonetheless, here is what we can do with it.  First of all, let’s put it into basic English, like this:

Moon set crow cry frost fill sky;
The moon is setting; a crow caws; frost fills the sky;

River maple fish lights to anxious sleep.
Among river maples fishing lights disturb sleep

Gu Su wall outside Cold Mountain Temple;
Outside Gu Su’s wall is Cold Mountain Temple;

Night middle bell sound reach visitor boat
At midnight the bell sound reaches the visitor’s boat.

That is still a bit awkward — not yet fitting well into our language.  So now let’s try to put it more comfortably into English:

The moon sets — a crow caws — the sky is filled with frost;
Fishing lights through river maples make sleeping hard.
Beyond the walls of Gu Su is Cold Mountain Temple;
At midnight its bell reaches this traveller’s boat.

That conveys the meaning, but it does not flow very smoothly.  It is a bit “jumpy” and awkward.  So let’s take it a third step and not be quite so literalistic; let’s make it fully an English poem.  In doing so, we will drop the name Gu Su (an old name for Suzhou):

The moon goes down — the caw of crows fills the frozen sky;
Sleep comes hard with fishing lights among the river trees.
Far beyond the city wall lies Cold Mountain Temple;
I hear its bell at midnight as I lie here in my boat.

That conveys, I think, the essentials of what Zhang Ji was trying to say.  But significantly, it is now no longer a “Chinese” poem.  It is an English-language poem written using the Chinese technique.  Nonetheless, beneath the flow of the English words one can still sense its seven-essential-words structure, which is as it should be, because that gives it its pattern.

One can write countless poems in this manner.  If you find the seven-word structure a bit too much at first, begin with a five-word structure.  Once you get the hang of it, writing Nature poetry in the old Chinese manner becomes very easy — but the result is throughly English (in the language sense, not the national).

Remember not to be too literalistic or rigid as you work with essential words.

As an added and non-essential note, remember that in writing such poems we are using only one aspect of old Chinese poetry, which differed in significant ways from how we write here.  The major difference — aside from language — is that old Chinese poetry rhymed.  And it had a rhythm that seems rather “sing-song” to English speakers.

To illustrate, here is a pinyin transliteration of Night Mooring at Maple Bridge:

Yuè luò wū tí shuāng mǎn tiān;
Jiāng fēng yú huǒ duì chóu mián.
Gū sū chéng wài hán shān sì;
Yè bàn zhōng shēng dào kè chuán.

If you are wondering what all the little marks above the letters mean, they indicate the tones in Mandarin, Chinese being (unlike English) a tonal language.

But the things to note are first, as already mentioned, that the verse uses rhyme in the Chinese original; and second, that it has precisely the sing-song rhythm of children’s verses in English — exactly the rhythm, in fact, of the old religious song:

Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
They are weak but he is strong.

That has four lines, like the poem of Zhang Ji, and it has the same rhythm as Night Mooring at Maple Bridge.  Now perhaps you can see why we do not customarily translate Chinese poems into English using rhyme.  In fact when I read Chinese poems in translation, I deliberately avoid those translated with rhyme, because inevitably they come off as childish and they stray too far from the original meaning.

That does not of course mean the poems are childish in the original.  It just means that in moving them from one culture to another, they take on characteristics that we customarily think of in English as childish, if they are translated using the rhythm and rhyme found in Chinese originals.  It is a matter of cultural and linguistic difference.  But again, all of that has nothing to do with my purpose here, which is not to duplicate Chinese poetry in English, but rather to take what is useful in old Chinese poetry and to apply it to the writing of new Nature poems in English.



In the last posting, we looked at a verse by Issa, who tends to bring emotion into his hokku.

Today we will look at something more objective on the same “spring” topic, “the long day.”  As we saw in Issa’s example, he composed the verse by combining two “long” things — age and the lengthening of the day — then making a statement on them:  that even the lengthening of days as one grows old “brings tears.’

By contrast, here is a hokku by Taigi on the same topic:

Nagaki hi ya   me no tsukaretaru   umi no ue
Long  day ya eyes  ‘s  grow-weary  sea ‘s on

The long day;
Eyes grow weary
On the sea.

Remember that in old hokku, the reader was expected to know enough about the principles of hokku to “get” what the writer was saying.  That is not, however, often the case for modern readers on their first reading of a rather literalistic translation of some old hokku.  Modern readers need a verse to be a bit more explicit, which is also a difference in general between the Japanese language, which tends to vagueness, and the English language, which tends to be more direct and clear.

What Taigi is saying then, is this:

The long day;
My eyes grow weary
Looking at the sea.

We can see that this is very much like the verse by Issa in structure, but without Issa’s emotion.  It even uses the same method of combining two similar things. In Issa it was age and the lengthening day; in Taigi it is the long day and the sea.

Now one may ask how the long day and the sea are the same, and though an adult may not understand, any child can tell you that they are both “long.”  Look out at the sea and it goes on and on to the horizon; that vast stretch is in keeping in feeling with the perceived length of the day in spring, so much longer than the short days of winter, and growing ever longer.

So this verse simply combines two similar things, as did Issa, and makes a statement about them.  Taigi’s statement is “My eyes grow weary.”  Of course we could take out “my” and make the verse a more literal translation, but in English it is really necessary for completeness, and we want to make not only our translations of old hokku but also the new hokku we compose in English thoroughly English, not just reflections of Japanese language practice.

If we look at other hokku on the same topic, we find similar methodology in many verses, and Shiki, who began confusingly calling his verses “haiku” even while he was still writing hokku, used it constantly:

Sunahama ni   ashiatao nagaki   haru-hi kana
Sandy-beach on  footprings long   spring day kana

On the sandy beach,
A long line of footprints;
The spring day.

By now you should be practiced enough in this method to see what Shiki is doing.  He is just doing the same as Issa, the same as Taigi, in combining two things.  But unlike the two previous verses, he adds no statement, so this is not a “statement” hokku.  Instead it is just a standard hokku (in spite of Shiki’s terminology), which means setting, subject, and action:

On the sandy beach,  Subject

A long line of footprints;  Action (the writer sees the long line stretching into the distance)

The spring day.   Setting

We should note that usually in hokku, the “action” is something moving or changing; here it is simply the perceived change from the ordinarily blank sand to the presence of the footprints, which from our perspective is hardly “action” at all.  It is a kind of “passive” action, but one must really be careful with this kind of thing, because all to easily it can make a verse into simply a photograph.  And all too often a hokku as photograph is too static to be interesting.

For Shiki, however, it was a part of his personal approach to many hokku, which was to make them small sketches of Nature.  That is why so many of his verses — like this one — could be easily converted into Japanese block prints requiring no real movement.  In that lay the character of much of Shiki’s verse, but also often its shallowness, which we do not feel in this example in spite of the technique.

The “combination of similar things” technique can be applied to many things, and Shiki did so.  Keep in mind that even though Shiki is known as the “creator” of haiku, he has almost nothing in common with most modern haiku.  Actually he is just the petulant point at which hokku splits into modern haiku and modern hokku.  Shiki himself still wrote verses that generally qualify as hokku, and most modern haiku people are as much at a loss to understand the methodology Shiki inherited from hokku as they are to understand the greater body of old hokku verse.  Modern haiku is simply a verse form that in English, for all practical purposes, was created in the middle of the 20th century out of misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku combined with Western notions of poetry.

But back to Shiki’s use of hokku technique.  We see the “combining similar things” method also in this verse by him:

Hyakunin no      nimpu tsuchi horu   hi-naga kana
Hundred-men ‘s   laborers earth dig   day-long kana

A hundred workers
Digging the earth;
The long day.

To understand such a verse, we must think not as modern haiku thinks (when it does at all), but rather we must see it from the hokku perspective, which is precisely the “combine similar things” method.  Here Shiki’s two things are the “hundred workers” and “the long day.”

We must not be too literalistic about this or we will fail to understand the method.  It is not that a hundred workers are long in the same way that the day is long; instead, it is a perception of volume/extent.  To put it in the terms of a child, which is generally the best way to understand and approach hokku, “a hundred workers” is a “long” number of workers, just as “the spring day” is long.  The big, slow job at hand takes a lot of laborers, and the passage of the long spring day takes a lot of time.  And that is how one varies the method.

Shiki also gives us another verse in which the combination of similar things is more obvious:

Kawa ni sōte   yukedo hashi nashi   hi no nagaki
River at  along walking bridge is-not  day ‘s long

Following the river,
Still there is no bridge;
The long day.

The two combined similar things here are of course “the river” and “the long day.”  Shiki unites them by adding the effect of walking on and on but finding no bridge to cross.  That adds to the effect of the length of the river and the length of the day.

The knowledge of such techniques faded out in modern haiku, which claims descent from Shiki, but it is still very much alive in the practice of modern hokku, which gets it — just as Shiki did — from the long tradition of old hokku.  R. H. Blyth, of course, explained the latter verse in his four-volume series (though he did not name or clarify the general method as clearly as I have done here), but the pundits of modern haiku paid little or no attention to him in the mid-20th century, preferring instead to remake “haiku” in their own image, which was really all they could do, given that they understood so little of the aesthetics and methodology of the old hokku, which even Shiki used in his very conservative “haiku.”



Perhaps you remember my “Fall” hokku:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literally, what Buson wrote was:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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