An autumn hokku by Issa:

English: harvest moon
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Standing unaffected
Beneath a Harvest Moon —
The scarecrow.

Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet that nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.  We admire and ooh! and ah! over the large, bright Harvest Moon, but the scarecrow just stands there unconcerned.  Full moon or no moon, it is all one to him because he does not think.  When it is warm he warms, when it is cold he cools; he is equal to all circumstances because he does not have a mind that prefers one thing and dislikes another.

Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us.

To see ourselves as others see us would indeed be helpful.  But it would also be useful to know how other people see the world in general.  We do not all see the same world, nor are we even consistent as to how we see the world from day to day.  When we are sad the world looks sad, when we are happy the world looks happy.

As the Dao De Jing says, without ugliness, how could we know beauty?  Without sorrow, how could we know happiness?

But none of this affects the scarecrow, who in his way is like is said of God, that he rains on the just and unjust alike.  To the scarecrow it is all one whether there is a beautiful Harvest Moon or an ink-black night.  And the reason he is in this hokku is because humans, as with dolls, cannot help the feeling that because of the human-like form of scarecrows, there must be some undefined thing about them that is in some way “human.”  That is why they move us more than do mere piles of sticks or of old clothing.

The old Ch’an Buddhist treatise Xin Xin Ming says,

To attain the Great Way is not difficult;
Just beware of liking and not liking.
When there is nothing you love or detest
Then everything becomes bright and clear.

The Harvest Moon, by the way, is the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox, which this year has already come and gone.  Now the days are growing ever shorter and the nights longer as the Yang of summer has given way to the increasing Yin of Autumn.








In studying contemplative hokku, a very good way to begin learning is by using patterns.

Patterns are hokku “frameworks” that we can use for writing countless new hokku.  By using them we learn the feel of the hokku form, and by changing the elements of a pattern we learn gradually to write original verses.

One of the most common patterns in hokku is the “standard” pattern, which consists of setting, subject and action.  For example, Shiki wrote:

A summer shower;
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We can easily use that as a pattern, replacing adjectives and nouns and verbs, etc.,  to make any number of new hokku.

Here is an article I wrote some time ago (you can see that I wrote it in autumn).  It shows how to use old hokku as patterns for learning to write new hokku:

Let’s begin by working with a slightly different pattern, a hokku by Gyōdai:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

And here is how one uses a hokku as a pattern for learning:

All parts of it can be changed, as long as one keeps the same basic form.

We can see that this is a standard hokku, meaning that it has a setting (the autumn hills) a subject (smoke) and an action (rises here and there).  These three elements need not be divided precisely line by line.  For example in this verse, the subject is found at the beginning of the third line, while the action is divided between the third line, where the verb is found, and the second line.

Do not worry about the order in which subject and action come, but rather just be sure there is a subject and an action.  We will keep the setting as the first line for this practice.

In the model verse, the setting is

The autumn hills;

That is an adjective followed by a noun.

We can change both the adjective and the noun.  We could make it:

The blue hills;
The distant hills;
The high mountain;
The deep forest;
The clear water;
The windy gorge;

And so on to infinity.

We can also change “the” at the beginning to “a” or “an.”

Because we are beginning autumn, whatever setting we choose as our adjective-verb  should relate to autumn (this changes according to the current season).  And we can make our start as easy as we wish at first, and then we can vary more and more elements as we gain experience.

As an example, we could use the same setting and only vary the subject and action:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Trees redden.

Now obviously that is rather mediocre, but in the beginning do not worry about making the “practice” hokku you write from patterns great hokku; improved content will come gradually.  Instead, focus on making the hokku fit the season and on following the pattern as you replace or vary elements within it.

We could also keep the same subject and action, and practice different first-line settings;

An old village;
Here and there
Smoke rises.


The autumn fields;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Once we begin getting the feel of it, we can vary both setting and subject and action, and we can also work on improving content:

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Scarecrows lean.

Again, remember that we are not looking to rival great hokku in our beginning practice.  We are just learning, first, to use a model; second, to be in keeping with the season; and third, to practice our freedom in varying the elements of the model.

Now what is the point in all this?

Beginning hokku is like wearing a toolbelt with lots of empty pouches, but no tools.  Each model we practice puts a tool in a pouch of our belt.  And then when one actually has an experience in Nature, one can use this tool — this pattern — as a way to organize that experience.  The more patterns we learn, the more options we have for organizing.  And you will find that as you practice these basic patterns, they will readily come to mind when you do have an experience and want to write it down.

In working on these patterns, keep in mind that the setting is usually the wider context in which something happens.  It can be a place, the weather, the season — usually the BIG part of the hokku into which the subject and the action fit, like in the model.  The smoke rising here and there happens in the BIG setting of the autumn hills.

The subject — aside from the setting — is what the verse is “about,” in this case “smoke.”  And the action is something involving the subject that is moving or changing.  In this case the smoke “rises here and there.”

Now you have the first tool that fits in your hokku workbelt.  You only have to practice using it for it to become very practical and helpful.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this, or need help with some problem in your practice, feel free to ask me by posting a comment to the site (only I shall see it).  And feel free, if you wish, to show me your progress and ask advice as you need it.

It is very important that if you really want to learn hokku, you practice these patterns carefully, making your changes and replacement of elements as simple and gradual as you like.  Go at your own pace, without being lax.  Do not make things too hard for yourself at first.  But again, as you get more practice in replacing elements in the pattern, and begin to get the sense of how it works, you can replace more elements and make your variations more different.  And as you do that, you can also work on content, keeping in mind all that I discuss in other postings.  Gradually your hokku — even your practice hokku — will improve.

Do not do it just once or twice; keep making variations of all kinds on a pattern until doing so comes quite easily.  That will make it much easier, eventually, to write hokku from your own direct experiences.

How well learning from patterns works depends on how hard the student works, and how well the student can absorb and express the aesthetics and spirit of hokku.  I have talked about these aspects in other postings.

Working with patterns is a first step on the path of hokku.  Taking it is up to you.

There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best.  Here is one (out of season at present):

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have a range of options.  ”Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  ”ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct — never complicated or confusing.

Remember, however, that the hokku I present are not here merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.  But you may be surprised at what interesting verses you can write as you begin to use models — hokku patterns.

We can take today’s practice hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the English language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse, which I would translate as:

Even on the small island –
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which — following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century –began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.

I have mixed verses of different seasons in this posting — which can be done for educational purposes — but remember that when you do the pattern work, you should use replacements that put the verse in the PRESENT season, which now would be autumn.



Autumn has begun.

Autumn is the declining of the life energies in Nature.  We see it in the withering of grasses and plants, in the yellowing and coloring and, eventually, the falling of the leaves.  In America our “native” name for the season is the Fall, and that is what it is — the fall of the leaves.  It is also the fall of the turning wheel of the year from the Yang height of summer to the deep Yin of winter.

In hokku it is very important that things reflect one another, that they are harmonious even in difference.  The declining of vital energy in the autumn is in keeping with late afternoon in the day.  In human life, it corresponds to the time when a person grows old, the “autumn of life,” as people say.  Autumn is a time of the calming of the energies of summer, a time when Nature prepares to go inward, to “return to the root” as we see in plants whose upper leaves wither as the energy to survive winter begins to concentrate in their roots.

Autumn is a time of change, of preparation for the harshness and stillness and poverty of winter.  Animals store their food or prepare for hibernation; birds, as the air cools, begin their great journeys southward across the skies.  Even humans like to find, when possible, a secure place to spend the coming winter.

Autumn, then, is the declining of Yang energy and the increasing of Yin, a movement toward the predominance of stillness and silence over activity and sound.  It manifests all through the season, for example in the cries of migrating wild geese high overhead that quickly pass and disappear in the distance, and in sudden storms that fade eventually to silence.

We see autumn, then, in things that are aging and things that are old; in fading leaves, in bleached boards, in withering plants, and old people with grey hair and slowing step.  We see it in the chilling of the air and the return of the rains, and of course in the decline of the path of the sun in the sky and the shortening of the day.

Scarecrows are a favorite subject for hokku in autumn because they manifest the character of the season so well — its aging, its frailty, its deepening poverty, its weakness:

Kyoroku wrote:

The scarecrow is blown down;
The storm

That shows us the frailty and weakness that are in keeping with the season, in spite of the strength of the storm.  And of course we can say of the scarecrow — as Nyōfu does here,

It is old
From the day it is made —
The scarecrow.

That is what makes it such an expressive manifestation of the autumn — its poverty, its weakness, its inherent frailty.

The scarecrow, we must note, is not a metaphor for anything; it does not symbolize or represent anything.  But of course because of the principle of reflection, we cannot help feeling ourselves in the scarecrow, and in fact, feeling all of Nature at autumn in the scarecrow.  It is said that a single falling leaf is all of autumn, and the same may be said of a scarecrow, which we feel in this verse of Chōi:

The autumn wind
Goes right through its bones —
The scarecrow.

The scarecrow shows us the transience and impermanence inherent in Nature, inherent in all things.

Shōha gives us the harmony of two similar things in this verse:

The evening sun;
The shadow of the scarecrow
Reaches the road.

The scarecrow is old as the day is old, and the sun declines as the year declines into silence and darkness.

The scarecrow is the ultimate of humility and selflessness.  It is no respecter of persons.  It removes its hat before no one, and it is unmoved alike by beauty and ugliness, as Issa points out:

A full moon;
It stands there indifferent —
The scarecrow.

Of course there is a bit of animism in that, the tendency of people to see “life” in things that are not alive in the usual sense.  The birds of autumn, however, are not fooled, as Sazanami shows us:

From scarecrow
To scarecrow they fly —
The sparrows.

Otsuyū writes

Autumn deepens;
The scarecrow is clothed
In fallen leaves.

It reminds us of the words of Jesus in the New Testament in that most poetic of translations, the “King James” version:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

The scarecrow, however, is above such sermons, unimpressed by status and position and wealth, unmoved by glory or shame, just a manifestation of elements that come together temporarily to make a form, and then disperse again into nothingness.




What is most important in hokku is understanding its aesthetics, which are generally quite different from those of English-language poetry.  One who understands the aesthetics and knows the basics of form and punctuation in hokku could actually do self-teaching merely from studying old hokku.

Unfortunately, when hokku first came West, English-speakers (and those of other European languages) did not see it afresh.  Instead, they looked at it and mistakenly saw what they already knew of Western poetry reflected in it.  So when they began to write, they were generally merely writing what they thought hokku was, not what it really was.  They looked at hokku and instead of seeing it for itself, they instead saw their own misconceptions reflected back at them.

To write hokku, one must therefore understand its aesthetics.  Anyone who does not may write all kinds of brief, three-line verses, but they will not be hokku.

If, as I said, one who understands hokku aesthetics can learn to write merely by reading old hokku, how is that done?  Here is an example:

Nyōfu wrote

It is old
From the day it is made —
The scarecrow.

We can see immediately that the pattern for this hokku is not that of the standard hokku, which is setting-subject-action.  Instead, in this verse a statement is made about the subject:

It is old from the day it is made.

And then, to indicate what the statement is about, the subject is added:

The scarecrow.

This kind of hokku is called a “statement” hokku, for the obvious reason that it is a statement made about something.  But it is not just any kind of remark.  The statement in the hokku must be something that is quite plainly true.  It is not merely an opinion or a commentary, but rather something that when said, the reader knows that is the way it is.  A statement hokku usually tells us something we already know, but do not know that we know until the little surprise that comes from reading it.  “Oh, yes, that is true!  I knew that, but never consciously thought about it.”

The writer looks at the scarecrow — face made of old cloth, body made of old clothes hanging on an old stake — and he realizes that a scarecrow is something that is never new; it is old from the day it is made.  And he shares that little illumination with the reader, who then experiences it for himself or herself on reading the hokku.

There is something else to be learned from this verse.  It uses a technique called “repeated subject,” which is very useful to know when writing hokku in European-origin languages.  Here is how it works.

“It” is the first subject, but when it is first used, we do not yet know what “it” is:

IT is old
From the day it is made —

Then comes the second, clear subject:

The scarecrow.

Because “it” and “the scarecrow” both refer to the same subject, we call this the “repeated subject” technique.  If you learn it, it will enable you to write countless hokku.

But now the aesthetics of the verse.

We are in autumn now in the Northern Hemisphere, and autumn is a time of aging and withering and dying in Nature.  The scarecrow, put together from old parts and stuffed with straw, reflects the character of the season.  Everything about it is old, withered, dry.  Scarecrows in autumn also make us think about the withering of the fields around them.  And because they look like people but are not — cannot move, cannot talk back — they also contribute to the lonely feeling of autumn.

Chasei wrote another scarecrow verse with a somewhat different feeling.  It does not translate precisely into English, so I will vary it slightly:

Out here,
There are more scarecrows
Than people.

Blyth translated the first line as

Where I live,

That is good too, though the original does not literally say “Where I live.”  It still conveys the intent, though not literally.

In any case, the verse tells us that the writer is in a lonely place, a rural, agricultural place.  In a way the scarecrows take the place of the missing people.

Notice that Chasei’s hokku is also a “statement hokku,” but it does not use or need the “repeated subject.”

Shōha wrote yet another “statement” hokku:

Near sunset,
Its shadow reaches the road —
The scarecrow.

Here again we use the “repeated subject” technique, though the form is slightly different in this verse than in the others.

The sun is very low in the western sky.  The angle of its light stretches out the shadow of the scarecrow until it touches the road at the edge of the field — a stretched-out scarecrow shadow.  There is something slightly creepy and Halloweenish about this, and we could talk about just why that is, but if we talk too much about it, it spoils the atmosphere of a hokku.  It is better just to experience it than to over-explain it.  So I will just tell you to picture the setting sun and the growing, lengthening shadow of the scarecrow just before the sun disappears and the darkness of night grows as well.  And of course the setting of the sun is the active, bright “yang” energy waning into the receptive, dark “yin” energy, which reflects what is happening in autumn as the yang energy of summer wanes and dissipates gradually into the cold, dark yin energy of winter.  Remember this reflection of the character of one thing in another, because it is very important in hokku.

Returning to the “repeated subject” technique, do not think that the “repeated subject” word must always be “it.”  We can see that from a very simple verse by Sazanami:

From scarecrow
To scarecrow they fly —
The sparrows.

Here the repeated subject takes the form of  “they” and “the sparrows.”

In the autumn fields, a little flock of sparrows lights on one scarecrow momentarily, twittering and chirping, then they rise into the air and fly off to another scarecrow momentarily, then on to another more distant….

Again, anyone who understands the aesthetics of hokku can learn to write it by reading all kinds of old hokku such as those given here.  But to do so takes patience and a sincere desire to learn without imposing one’s own preconceptions on the verses.